Major Publishers Targeting Tablature Sites

On the heels of the heated discussion on this site about trading live shows, comes this story about sites that share tablature.

Major music publishers are continuing to pursue unauthorized music sites, including those offering tablature (mostly rock guitar tabs). The practice of sharing tabs online has existed for years, but publishers are now targeting destinations that are profiting from the use of copyrighted material. During a recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR), National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) attorney Jacqueline Charlesworth pointed to a campaign against,

sites that have hundred of guitars tabs, sheet music, often with lyrics, especially those running ads and making money off of other people’s copyrights.

One site that has been targeted by this campaign is Guitar Tab Universe, a massive destination that recently received warning letters from both the NMPA and Music Publishers’ Association (MPA). Owner Rob Balch complied with the requests, though he questioned the logic of the legal threats.

At what point does describing how one plays a song on guitar become an issue of copyright infringment? This website, among other things, helps users teach eachother how they play guitar parts for many different songs. This is the way music teachers have behaved since the first music was ever created. The difference here is that the information is shared by way of a new technology: the Internet.

Apparently, the NMPA/MPA believes that the Internet may be on the foul side of the legality line they would like to draw here. For me, I see no difference. It’s teachers educating students and covered as a ‘fair use’ of the tablature. The teachers here don’t even get paid nor do the students have to pay this website to access the lessons.

What he says is true, no money is changing hands between the people downloading the tabs. But a quick visit to his site reveals that he has sold advertising on the site. That is, he is making money off all the visitors to his site who are coming for the purpose of finding tablature to copyrighted songs. At least that’s the argument the publishers are pursuing.

I would suggest that it makes no difference whether he is “making money” or not off the site. If it is copyright infringement then it’s wrong, regardless of any income stream that may or may not exist. So the question really is, “What are the copyright laws regarding sheet music, lyrics, tablature, and fair use?” As far as I can tell, and I’m no lawyer, making a “copy” or reproduction of any “performable” portion of a piece of music is not considered fair use.

I do know this, John (AcuTab) has printed a number of books of tablature, and produced instructional DVDs of bluegrass artists teaching the solos they themselves played on a CD or recording. Most of the DVDs have contained somewhere between 7 and 15 songs and I know that John has always made a good faith effort to pursue and obtain licenses for each copyrighted song on those DVDs and in those books. And I might add that doing so has cost him a good bit of time and frustration, but it’s the right, and legal, thing to do.

We’ll open this thread to comments in case anyone wants to discuss the legal issues involved in the instance of websites sharing lyrics and tablature for copyrighted songs. Let’s hear from you…

John adds: Not only is researching (and paying!) copyright royalties to songwriters cumbersome, time-consuming and almost always incomplete, the explosion of growth in free tab sites has all but killed the market for the sort of authorized tab transcription books that AcuTab was created to publish. That, and the surge in the use of instructional DVDs, has created a market where we are not likely to ever publish another tab book companion to a bluegrass CD release. If bluegrass consumers prefer free tab sites online to authorized, artist-approved tab books (for which the artist is compensated), that’s what they will get.

  • poul w

    The advertising revenue drives the bandwidth. The advertising revenue doesn’t drive the content.
    It’d be different if a tab site admin used ad revenue to commission branded tablature.
    The subtext of your article seems to be that the community of hobbyists who share tab is ‘bad’ because it’s cutting into your friends business and if people want to learn they should just pay. I disagree with this and I don’t believe for a minute the “all but killed the market” comment regarding free tab.
    Internet tabs are limited learning tools provided by hobbyists.
    The illogical end game of your argument is that music students would be forced to pay extra every time a music teacher shows/writes down how to play Blackbird.
    If the legal end of the music industry really wants to go there then I for one will gladly and determinedly never purchase another DVD or book from homespun etc. and will just as gladly turn towards less restrictive methods of learning.

  • Poul, I don’t know what your experience is in the market but that’s what John does (or rather, did) for a living. I’ll take his word for it, when he says the market for legal, artist approved transcriptions has dried up because everyone is downloading free tab.

    Secondly, you missed my point. The point is not that

    the community of hobbyists who share tab is ?¢‚ǨÀúbad?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢

    but rather, my point is that regardless of whether you or I like the copyright laws, they are law nonetheless and should be obeyed. And they are laws for a reason. They are set up to compensate the songwriters who create the songs we love to play. If we choose not to pay them for their work, I wouldn’t blame them if they chose not to work. That would would mean no more great songs for you and I to learn.

  • Mike Martin

    I could see where the popularity of free tab sites does injure songwriters. Fifteen years ago, pretty much the only way to get a transcription of a song was to buy the sheet music at your local music store. If you were taking lessons, your teacher may have provided a few limited transcriptions, but you probably had to purchase the majority of your sheet music. I imagine that the sales of sheet music and songbooks has diminished quite a bit as free tab sites have proliferated.

    That said, the selection of legal music transcriptions have always been a little limited. For example, as far as I can tell, there is no legal John Hartford songbook other than The Banjo According to John Hartford (an excellent resource, no doubt, but hardly complete.) I did find an out-of-print songbook from 1971, selling for $125.00 at a rare books site. If I want to learn any one of his other 100 or so compositions, I can:

    1. Learn by ear (always the best solution in any case imho, but time-consuming and not always realistic , especially for beginners).

    2. Find someone who has transcribed his songs and posted them on the net (which unfortunately is a rarity anyways). Which is illegal.

    There ought to be a way to find a middle ground here. A way for the hobbiyists and enthusiasts to post their transcriptions of their favorite artists (which may not be availiable anywhere legally), while still providing the songwriter with their well-deserved royalties. Create a website that charges $2(?) per song transcription download. Report your numbers to the approriate clearinghouse, and pay them $1(?) per download. I’m sure it’s not that easy, but it shouldn’t be too difficult either.

  • Rosanne .

    I’m in agreement with everybody above – artists deserve to be compensated, and free tab could well have an impact on the sale of published tab. HOWEVER, I’d like to point out that most free tab is published in a format (for banjo, TablEdit) that allows you to slow it down, speed it up, rewind, and even make changes to it. That’s the main reason I download it. I’d rather have this than a dvd that I have to stop playing to adjust. I use a combination of free tab, tab books and videos. My husband often buys sheet music online. TablEdit is infinitely better than Scorch – what he’s usually stuck with. If vendors offered tab online in this very useful format, I’d buy it from them, versus looking around for the freebie stuff. I suggest the artists and publishers look up some of the outstanding transcribers like Jack Baker and Janet Davis, and license them to arrange and/or sell the tab online in this format. They’ve already worked much of it out – it would be a simple matter of allowing them to sell the results in a more useful format, and pay a fee to the owners.

  • WryGrass

    Well, I’m new here, and I don’t know how much this topic has been kicked around. But…and this is just one man’s opinion. IMHO, the best way to handle this is to keep a low profile. Relative to other genres we’re pretty small. And a lot of non-commercial stuff goes on. A couple of credos I like: ‘If you can’t stand the answer, don’t ask the question.’ The corollary being, ‘It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.’

    Over the years in my line of work I worked with LOTS of copyrighted copy. Every time we tried to figure out just what the limits were, we’d come away with more confusion than before we started. Even good copyright attorneys have trouble with this.

    Anyway, the best way to get our stuff noticed is to talk it up. Me? I’m gonna zip up, and talk about how the mandolin market seems to be going soft….among other things.

  • fourstringerjosh

    I don’t think that tab sites are breaking any copyright laws. If I listen to a song and send my own interpretation of it to a friend , is that breaking any laws? Also, you can only find tab books for songs and albums that are popular. A lot of music that I listen to isn’t really popular, and no tab books exist for them. It’s not the same as the whole downloading music thing, this is not the copywritten version, just an interpretation.
    This is just my opinion, feel free to disagree.