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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Discord over guitar sites
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Guitar sales are at an all time high, according to figures last week
With the fight against illegal downloading of songs starting to pay off, the music business has set its sights on a new enemy on the internet - websites which transcribe pop songs into musical notation.

The guitar may be enjoying a comeback among schoolboys and dad rockers alike, but beginners hoping to strum along with their favourite bands are finding dissonance online.

Having seen off some of the biggest networks that enabled free downloading of songs over the net, the music business is now calling the tune for websites aimed at guitarists.

Music publishers in the US say the guitar "tab" sites illegally infringe songwriters' copyright, and have issued "take down" orders to some of the biggest.

Tab, or guitar tablature, is a simple form of musical notation for the guitar - far easier to learn than traditional musical notation. Notes are depicted on a staff that represents six strings across a fret board.

Some of the sites targeted have all but closed down, provoking an angry reaction on guitar blogs.

Illegal adaptations

Since the early days of the net, guitarists have shared tabs for their favourite songs, online.

Tab example
Form of musical notation that tells players where to place fingers on fret board
Six horizontal lines represent six strings of the guitar
Numbers show where each string is fretted

While tab is officially published in books, to be bought, from which a royalty goes to the songwriter, the selection is limited - most songs are never formally transcribed.

But online, just about any artist, from Boyzone to Big Bill Broonzy, has had their work written into tab - free to view, no registration required.

Most sites, however, claim their tabs are not ripped off from official sources - rather they represent the "interpretation" of a song. Skilled musicians can transcribe a guitar riff, chord sequence or solo after just a few listens.

But that doesn't wash with the music industry, which says even adaptations of songs are covered by copyright law.

Cathal Woods, who runs Olga.net - Online Guitar Archive - has removed all 34,000 tablatures in the site's archive after getting a "take down" letter from lawyers representing two US groups: the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and the Music Publishers Association of the United States (MPA).

"Obviously [the NPMA and the MPA think] the law is on their side and [that] these are copyright infringements," he says. But he plans to fight the order along with other sites.

"They're forcing everyone off the net but as far as I know they don't have anything [an iTunes-style equivalent] that would fill the need for guitar tab online.

"My other objection is that for the music publishing companies, it's as if the internet never happened. The internet changes everything and we need to think about what's permissible in the context of the internet."

'Unprofitable' site

Olga, which claimed 1.9 million users a month before going offline, is the mother of all guitar tab sites, dating back to 1992. So why has the crackdown come now?

Olga grab
Olga, which started as a Usenet group, has been shut
"Some people say it's because the business is looking for a new target after MP3 sites. But almost all tab sites use very basic, text-only tabs. They are low-level, low information sites whereas with MP3 sharing sites you were getting something that is qualitatively identical to the original song."

Mr Woods says that Olga was not a profit-making site. Its advertising covered its cost, but it kept a community feel.

"[The lawyers] say we're making money out of these sites but I've never been paid for it. It's a hobby. I've got a full-time job," he says.

Speaking last year, the president of the NMPA, David Israelite, said unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature "deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing. The US MPA says it has the support of sister organisation around the world, including its UK counterpart.

Lawyer and editor of Out-law.com Struan Robertson says under British law, there is little doubt that tab sites are, technically, breaking copyright laws. But he is "disappointed" with how the US music industry is going about it.

"In the UK a few years ago, the British music industry didn't go after MP3 sites because at the time there was no legal source of reasonably priced music on the internet. Then iTunes [Apple's legal music download site] came along and only then did the British industry step in and threaten to sue the illegal sites."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

There is a world of difference between downloading music that you would otherwise have to pay for and getting hold of the tab of a song by an artist that is not popular enough to have their music published in tab form! Most of the tab I have ever seen is nothing more than unoffical interpretations of litte known songs I like. Would it be illegal if I worked it out for myself? What will the US decide is illegal next? Singing in the bath?
Peter, The Hague, NL

This is ludicrous! I learnt to play Guitar from these tabs and to say that they deprive anyone of any money is stupid. About 60% of these tabs are wrong anyway.
Sukhy Bhullar, pencoed

This is ridiculous, the guitar player probably would have had to have bought the single/album before they decided they liked the song enough to play it, so the greedy music companies still get their cash anyway. Next they'll be saying that MIDI files are illegal cos they sort of sound a bit like a copyrighted song
David, Cambridge

What possible benefit will anyone gain from taking TAB off the net? Encouraging budding guitarists to play other people's songs will only help to swell their enthusiasm for music, which in turn will surely be profitable for the music industry in terms of CD sales. Besides which, if no-one learns to play these instruments, who is gonna record CDs in the future?!
Dave, Wolverhampton

I've never seen anything so ridiculous. Are music companies now going to get the police to arrest anyone caught playing songs on their guitar or piano because it infringes copyright?!
Antony, London, UK

Crazy! I've enjoyed using tabs off the internet for years. This ridiculous greed by the recording industry needs to be stopped. What next? No publishing of lyrics - what would Smash Hits have done? No cover-bands? No singing copyrighted material in public? No whistling? Tabs encouraged loyal fans and did not threaten any source of revenue for the artists in the vast majority of cases.
Dirty Idea, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

This is beyond ridiculous. I have downloaded tabs for ages, and it normally forces me to go out and buy the music so I can adjust the tabs to get them perfect. If anything the free supply of tabs online would aid the singers by popularising their music, and allowing new people to hear the songs.
Rich Bradley, London, England

As a guitar player since the age of twelve I have frequently used internet guitar tab sites as an aid to learning. The officially endorsed guitar books are grossly overpriced and are very limited in their covereage of music, and as a cash-strapped student I find it an obvious option for obtaining material. For many it is a challenging hobby transcribing the latest songs. To me this is on a totally different level compared to swapping MP3 files. Would I be faced with a lawsuit by writing down the chords to a new song on a scrap of paper and handing it to a friend? This idiocy must stop. Whats next? Suing people for singing lyrics in the street?
Sam West, Witney, Oxfordshire

This is just a conversative knee jerk reaction from the music publishers and a cruel blow for every keen guitarist. The tabs that are posted online are often the only transcribed version of the songs in question, most are quite accurate with some adaption, whilst some are woefully poor (as in some legally purchased music books!). The publishing industry cannot simply wipe these off the net without offering a legal alternative to obtain accurate guitar transcriptions of a such a large number of songs.
Dave, Huddersfield

Utterly ridiculous.
MartyG, UK

I personally would have thought that the artists would be proud of the fact that people want to play their songs. Also, people learning covers tend to do so for playing them in pubs and bars not to record for sale, which has got to be a massive marketing tool for the artists. The artist may not get money directly from the sites but I'm sure local bands covering songs would increase the sales for the artists music.
L, Sheffield

Clearly the line has to be drawn somewhere. Am I technically breaking the law if I listen to a song and work out the tab for myself to play without paying the songwriter? Presumably not, but what about if I tell my friend to save him the trouble of figuring it out? If that's okay, how many friends can I tell before I'm "stealing" as the NMPA would put it? Does it make a difference if I tell my friend or friends in person or by email or by putting it on a website? Why don't the record companies stop declaring war on their fans? These people aren't going to buy a book of fifteen songs for 20 if they only want to strum along to one song they like. The actual loss to the songwriter is probably close to zero. Actually, it's probably a net gain because if people enjoy the song more by playing along to it, there's more chance they'll buy the next album by the same band... Is the NMPA actually shooting itself in the foot here?

This is another heavy-handed action by the music industry. Why are they doing it now if Olga has been around since 1992? I guess it comes down to the fact that people can download guitar tabs for free and so aren't going out and buying the official sheet music, so the music publishers are losing money.
Alan Hyde, Essex

You are having a laugh. Honestly this is an absolute disgrace. If tab sites are banned then the only way guitarists can learn music is to go out and buy songbooks which are usually very expensive, and usually there is a limited choice of songs. Do the artists not make enough money anyway now that we're not allowed to download music freely and that we have to pay 13 for a CD that usually only has 2 or 3 decent songs on it? It does occur to me that maybe the music industry is realising that if the notations of popular music is free for all to view then people will start to realise that hardly any of the bands out there have any talent at all, especially as their favourite McFly (or whoever) song is likely to only consist of 3 chords and can be played by anyone, including people who have never touched a guitar in their lives. If this happens people could start to realise the whole industry is a giant scam and there is no value in any of the music nowadays. I'm inclined to agree with Bob Dylan when he said "why shouldn't people be allowed to download music for free, it ain't worth nothing anyway." OK, downloading music is an infringement of copyright, fair enough, but the use of free tabulature from the internet by serious guitarists is nothing to do with trying to rip-off the industry, and is all to do with bringing some inexpensive enjoyment into people's lives and generally bettering ourselves.
Paul Salmon, Edinburgh

While I think that artists and songwriters should be rewarded for their efforts, I think todays environment is very different from that when the song copyright laws were created. In the past, a songwriters sole income was through the sale of sheet music, because there was no recording industry. But now the royalties come mostly from recordings, I think it is a little mean to deprive new musicians of the right to exchange songs between themselves. If they record and publish them, then there should be a royalty payment, but not for transcribing a song by ear. I mean, are theses firms going to send agents to every school/rehersal room/ jam seesion to make sure that people don't share licks and chord progressions? I bet many of these songwriters themselves learnt songs from other people without buying the sheet music....(oh and I am a songwriter myself, and would consider it an honor to have my stuff up on OLGA)
Shane, London

Where does this stop. Will music publishers be asking for royalties every time we whistle a tune on the way to work.
Matt Birchall, Chorley, UK

Where will this nonsense end? The guitar tabs are neither a copy of the performance made by the artist nor a copy of the music written by the artist, ie they are a derivative work (and therefore covered under fair usage). Should we now be paying royalties to John Cage for breach of copyright of 4'33" every time we are quiet?
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

This is insane! So now the only way to enjoy your favourite artist's music is by sitting in front of a cd player or plugging yourself into an MP3 player and just listening? How are those interested in taking up music going to learn and maintain an interest in an instrument? Playing along and interpreting popular (and in my case not-so-popular) artist's songs is the key to improving your playing. There are tab books available for some entire albums, but they are overpriced, and in too many cases inaccurate. What next? Italy taking out injunctions on budding chefs making their own pizzas? Crass nonsense.
John McNulty, London

It will be an inconvienence for most but the majority of people who play guitar will be able to work out the songs by ear, will know someone who can or will teach themselves. The real issue is that it may discourage youngsters who are just starting and are encouraged by being able to play a chart song or almost any song. Staring to learn to play encourages you to listern to music and hopefully, as far as the music industry is concerned buy CDs etc.
David Gill, Bristol

In what way does tablature deprive "the songwriter of the ability to make a living"? Are armies of teenage boys wandering the streets, pretending to be Eric Clapton and performing concerts to thousands for profit? It's got to the point now that the record industry is so protective of their 'product', it's a wonder it's not forbidden to remove the CD from its packaging. I'd be interested to hear the views of the songwriters themselves. Of course, you'd never be able to get a representative sample of their opinions without clearance...
Dan, London, UK

Maybe the music industry should be worried - most of the time the tabs you find online (which are free) sound far better than those in official tab books (which generally cost more than the album the music was from). What I want to know is when they're going to start suing me for singing in the shower!
Rachael, London

I am very sad at the current closing of many great guitar tab sites. Guitar music for purchasing is very limited and expensive. Tab sites online are essentially a fan community sharing how to play different songs. What's next? They'll be suing people for singing songs in the street!
Sam, Derby UK

Who are they going to target next? Those who play by ear?
Paul, Isle of Man

It is rediculous of the music industry to shut down these sites, it is just revenge for people illegally downloading songs which they are finding hard to stop. There are thousands of skilled musicians out there who spent their time figuring out the 'tabs' for all kinds of songs for others to enjoy and now most of that work is lost with sites such as my favourite, mxtabs, being shut down (although they did voluntarily)
Jonny Casey, Chester, England

Tab sites if anything encourage me to by the published version of the songs. Using tab from the internet I can get a feel for what the song is like to play before I spend on average 15 (5 more then the actual CD!) book. If I like the album then i will usually buy the book as internet tab is usually innaccurate and poorly laid out.
Pete, Glos

This is bordering on the the ridiculous. Without such "illegal" tab sites I would have never been able to afford to learn how to play guitar (being from a low income family). I have been playing the guitar for 8 years and thanks to tab websites I have the confidence and ability to wrote my own original songs.
Dominic, Cardiff, UK

I'm gutted that this is happening. I'm a bad guitar player and cant read music but used free tab sites to learn songs. All the sites are a ground of people offering advice and guidance on how to play music, the only people stopping it are greedy self obsessed lawyers and music executives.
Tom, Birmingham

I suppose singing in the Bath is illegal as well then?
Paul Phillips, Poole, Dorset

Well perhaps if the record companies would bother to publish this stuff people wouldn't go online and look for it. Sometimes I want to do a filk version of a song and its far easier to try to search for the tab online and then rewrite the lyrics (which is covered by fair use and satire legislation, at least in the US, not really sure how it works here) then it is to try to transcribe it. But I don't see what the record companies hope to achieve by this - I can just go to one of my very talented friends and ask him to transcribe something if I can't find it online, and the record company still haven't got any extra money out of me. How pointless. What next? Cracking down on pub covers bands?
Jez Lawrence, leeds, uk

The president of the NMPA should reserve the part of his anatomy he is now talking out of for what nature intended: For sitting on. The greed of the music companies is unlimited - how can a few joes looking at tab sites harm their bloated profits? Sopmebody ought to set up a site in Korea or China.
Chris Pannell, Orlando USA

I am a big fan of guitarist Martin Simpson. I first heard his music on an 'illegal' copy of one his albumns. I also learned some of his tunes with tabs from Olga and other similar sites. I now own nine Martin Simpson albumns, have two instructional videos, two official tab books and have seen him perform a number of times. The value of file swapping - both tabs and music - should not be overlooked in terms of its benefit to the artist.
Tim, London

Yet another attack by the greedy music industry in there attempt to silence opposition. If they think this will restore the bloated profits of yester year, they are mistaken. Thw world has moved on and they are still living in the past.
Doug Charnley, Louisville,Co/USA

I've been playing guitar for about 14 years, and finding tab on the net has been an invaluable learning tool. Largely, internet tab isn't as accurate as official tab, and hence will appeal to learners who just want to dip into the occasional song - who wants to buy the whole transcription of the Back In Black album when you only want the main riff in the title track? We should be promoting the learning of music rather than trying to restrict it.
Shahid, London, UK

This is about the third or forth major attempt by US music industry organisations to have guitar tab sites shut down. Previous attempts (the first being circa 1996) didn't get any media attention due to being such a minority interest. It's only due to the number of cases against mp3 filesharing that this has been picked up. Hopefully common sense will prevail again and this will go the way of the previous attempts - technically it is breach of copyright, but so is singing along with the radio... Then again, no one ever accused the US music industry of possessing common sense.
Matt, London

This is ridiculous. Musicians have always shared ideas on how to play a song. What if the guy got it wrong and the TAB on the site doesn't exactly match the original tune, then by the same law it's not breaking coyright as it would be classed as a new tune. What next? Are we going to break into kid's bedrooms and charge them when they next work out how to play their favourite pop song correctly. It's time the music business backed off and grew up. Sharing guitar TABs can only make their main product more popular.
Martin, Wokingham, UK

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