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.