Updated 2/11/09 at 6:50 P.M. PT to add more context to the licensing debate and to correct Amnon Sarig's title.
Back in October, we took a look at close look at TuneWiki, a media enhancement application for Google Android that scrolls through a song's lyrics as you play a song or YouTube music video. The company announced this week an update to its free Android application that will let you also stream Internet radio on your phone. The update, which will be submitted to the Android Market this Saturday, will give streaming songs TuneWiki's lyrical capabilities, as well as its social networking enhancements. As a moral perk, many of the lyrics will be legally licensed. We'll lay out the program's highs and lows, general availability, and some legal particulars.
We mostly liked TuneWiki when it first came out--certainly the idea of it, and in general the application's performance. It is also the first application of this type that I've seen for mobile phones. (The free-to-try application MiniLyrics has been around for a while on the desktop.) TuneWiki wasn't always as stable as we'd have liked, and syncing wasn't always on-point. We looked forward to the media application's next steps. Lyrics precision and a few stability issues were still present in our preview version of TuneWiki; hopefully the latter will be addressed by the time TuneWiki 1.0 reaches the Android Market.
Streaming Internet radio
Providing Internet lyrics, and legal ones at that, are the two biggest points of interest in this update. First let's tackle the streaming Internet feature. Like Pandora, Last.FM, and Slacker Radio, TuneWiki's Internet radio feature (designated by a microphone icon on the application's navigation menu) lets you choose stations by genre and popularity, and save favorite stations. In addition, TuneWiki can display a music map showing you where else the song is playing at that moment, and can stream lyrics that users have uploaded into TuneWiki's database from its Web site--the 'wiki' element of TuneWiki's service.
TuneWiki's streaming lyrics component only works for some stations, and then the lyrics are only as good as the user-generated database itself. If you're lucky enough to get a station compatible with TuneWiki's lyrics software, making them sync with the streaming song is your next challenge.
TuneWiki tasks you with finding your place and then tapping on it, after which the software takes over and highlights the lines for you. This TuneWiki did, but on a song with a quick tempo, the feature didn't kick in until two more lines had played. This is by far the application's biggest drawback. In addition, artist credits were only present on stations that could stream TuneWiki's lyrics. For many stations, we were left in the dark.
Of legalities and lyrics
In addition to streaming Internet radio, TuneWiki is announcing a partnership with a major music publishers association that grants TuneWiki the rights to stream lyrics for almost 2 million songs. Music law is complicated stuff, but as TuneWiki's President, Amnon Sarig, explains it, the licenses let TuneWiki legitimately give the green light to many user-submitted lyrics. Those that fall outside the licensing scope are protected under the 'safe harbor' provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Wikipedia). TuneWiki isn't breaking any laws--for now--by streaming any unlicensed lyrics its users upload, unless the rights-owner asks for a take-down. (Sarig told CNET in an interview that his company complies with publishers' requests to block song lyrics.) This is interesting stuff, especially in light of Warner Music Group's lawsuit against Seeqpod for its role in corralling copyrighted MP3s for users to play. Perhaps TuneWiki's show of good faith and latest licensing gains will shield it from similar lawsuits.
TuneWiki plans to submit the free version 1.0 of its lyrics application to Google's Android Market. By March or April, the company expects to release TuneWiki for BlackBerry, J2ME, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. These versions are currently being tested in a closed beta program. It is also possible to download TuneWiki onto jailbroken iPhones and iPod Touches, though there is currently no listing in the iTunes App Store.