September 28, 2006

Music publishers seek to silence guitar tablature sites

by Jonathan Opp


It wasn't long ago that guitarists learned how to play in public jam sessions. Experts shared what they knew with beginners. They were places where no one worried about copyrights or royalties, no music publishing companies looking over shoulders. When you were good enough, you'd buy the correct sheet music, or if you were really good, you'd write your own.

The jam session is still happening today, only now it's global. It's also in danger of being shut down by the same organizations that could potentially stand to gain the most from a growing community of expert guitar players.

In the arena of Internet rock, few names are more famous than OLGA. The Online Guitar Archive has been collecting homemade guitar chord and tablature files since the days when Pearl Jam ruled in '92. If you wanted to work out the chords to your favorite song, you could start with OLGA. Chances are, another guitarist had already done some of the work for you.

At least until July 7 of this year, when Cathal Woods, OLGA's curator, pulled down the site after receiving a letter citing copyright infringement.

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In December 2005, the NMPA (National Music Publishers' Association) and MPA (Music Publishers' Association), organizations that represent the music publishing industry, announced they would be targeting websites that traded user-generated guitar chords and tablatures. Tablatures are visual diagrams of guitar fingerings. According to its website, the NMPA is the largest US music publishing trade association whose mission is to protect, promote, and advance the interests of music's creators.

One copy of a letter sent by a law firm on behalf of the NMPA/MPA was transcribed and posted on Guitar Tabs.com:

"The versions of these publishers' musical works that you post on your website are not exempt under copyright law. In fact, U.S. copyright law specifically provides that the right to make and distribute arrangements, adaptations, abridgements, or transcriptions of copyrighted musical works, including lyrics, belongs exclusively to the copyright owner of that work."

How guitar tablature sites like OLGA work: Guitarists listen to a song and then transcribe them by ear, using simple chord names or more detailed tablature, then post the files. Sometimes the songs are incomplete or incorrect--one ear may hear a "B minor" chord that's really a "B flat"--so they invite others to send improvements. The songs are usually not copied from existing published sheet music. Though there's little to prevent this from happening.

"It doesn't seem wrong to most folks when the tab writer invests his or her time learning the chords, writing them down, and then shares the fruits of those efforts with others," says Michael Carroll, Associate Law Professor at Villanova University and Creative Commons director. "However, copyright law is concerned with economic substitutes. If the tab is displacing a sale, there's trouble no matter how hard it was to write the tab."

This is the third time OLGA has been taken offline because of legal threats. After the second challenge in 1998, OLGA incorporated as a non-profit and continued to run as a volunteer operation, selling t-shirts, hats, and advertising to help cover hosting and legal costs. Today Woods doesn't know when or if the site will be back.

"One of my main complaints about the NMPA and the MPA is that they simply assume the law is on their side and that there's no issue here, and the Internet doesn't change a thing," Woods says. "The DMCA gives any copyright holder the ability to fire off these letters and shut people down. Especially if they don't have monetary or legal resources at hand."

What has also sparked frustration among hobbyist guitar players is that only a small fraction of all recorded music has been officially transcribed. If you want to buy Beatles chords or the tabs to a popular mainstream song, you'll probably find what you're looking for in a book at your local music store or online. But if you want to try to play your favorite song from an independent artist, you may be out of luck. Before it was shut down, OLGA featured 34,000 files.*

Some readers may find aspects of this subject reminiscent of the book "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson. Anderson argues that culture is continuing to shift from a focus on big mainstream successes to a focus on ever-smaller niche markets--and that the Internet is allowing these markets to be served more efficiently.

Carroll has written about the guitar tablature issue in his August 22 blog:

"Rather than work with this online community that has formed around the music, by perhaps adopting an advertising-based and value-added approach, the publishers want to disband it and preserve a sales model that would force guitarists into a passive consumption role."

Carroll may have been on to something. Adopting an advertising-based and value-added approach is exactly what YouTube and Warner Music did:

Last week the two companies signed a deal that may signal a new era for media companies coming to terms with the realities of a digital world. In the deal, YouTube users are allowed to incorporate Warner music into their videos, and in return Warner gets a share of the YouTube ad revenue.

Perhaps agreements like this may ultimately be the answer to revive OLGA, its 34,000 files, and its active user community.

There may be other alternatives as well.

One of the more obvious is the creation of a digital download model similar to Apple's iTunes $0.99 per-song that followed in the wake of Napster. Tabs for individual songs could be sold at a low price; publishers and artists would reach a vastly larger audience over printed music today, and still get a cut of the revenue.

"If they had an 'iTab' ready to go modeled on iTunes or something like that where you could buy high-quality tablatures or scores for a buck a piece or $0.50 each, that would be awesome," Woods says. In the short term, however, he adds, what's happened is something that was fun, useful, and brought people together has been taken away.

There is a digital model that does exist for sheet music called Sheet Music Direct. Files in the guitar tab format are authorized versions and priced at $3.95 per song. As with printed sheet music you find in music stores, songs here tend to be in the popular/mainstream music category. Currently they list about 3800 files available in tab format, 400 for easy guitar, and 500 for easy guitar with tab. (Understanding the same song may be listed under more than one format.) The site uses a viewer plug-in called Scorch, which allows you to view and transpose the music, and print it once.

Perhaps a hybrid of the iTunes-type model could include unofficial community tab files at no cost, then after the files are certified for accuracy by a publishing company or the artists, an official version could be sold per-song. This model could also work as a subscription, where guitarists can access as many of the certified songs as they want for one price. Here the publishing industry reaps the added benefit of having the community help do the work of transcribing songs for them.

Or musicians could take matters into their own hands. While it's difficult for many artists and songwriters because publishing companies often own the rights to the songs, there may be an opportunity for independent artists who retain control over their own compositions. The artists could sell the chords and tablatures to their fans directly through their own websites. It could potentially help grow their fan base and serve a market at the same time.

Or, even better, the artists could release the tablatures into the community under Creative Commons licenses. With a Creative Commons license, artists can specify exactly how the tabs can be used. For example, they could allow non-commercial use only, or they could allow unrestricted use of the tabs as long as the artist is credited. The idea is that the people who want to play your songs are likely the same people who buy your music and attend your concerts.

Woods presents yet another option: "If they could just send me an email, I could open up their tab again on OLGA."

* More than one file (separate bass guitar, tablature, or chords alone) may be for the same song.