MPA goes after fan guitar sites

October 2006

Music Publishing, internet

In January 2006 we asked whether the Music Publishers Association (MPA) was wise to target unauthorized online lyric and music score sites after the Association, which represents US sheet music companies, launched its campaign with MPA president Lauren Keiser saying he wanted site owners to be fined and jailed. Mr Keiser cited the Xerox machine as the first enemy of sheet music and now identifies the internet as a new major enemy. Now the MPA is after guitar fan websites which they say infringe songwriters’ copyrights. These give so called ‘tab’ instructions which stands for guitarist tablature which show guitarists where to put their fingers to play a chord and primarily are used by people playing at home. Traditionally tab notations and sequences of chords have been found in books and – understandably – book publishers and authors have been upset when their publications have been copied wholesale onto the internet. But Pinsent Mason’s excellent Out-Law site reports that the MPA and the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) have shut down several websites or forced them to remove all tabs using threats of copyright law suits. The sites are typically fan-run and not significant profit-making enterprises and many of the tab notations are worked out by players just from listening to performances of songs. Some legal commentators in the US suggest that tabs generated by users may have free speech protection. The MPA’s Lauren Keiser said that “people can get [tab] for free on the internet, and it’s hurting the songwriters” but Guitar Tab Universe manager Rob Balch counters the argument that the tab sites are infringing copyright by saying “at what point does describing how one plays a song on guitar become an issue of copyright infringement? This website, among other things, helps users teach each other 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.” Publishers argue that copyright legislation protects the tablature because they are “derivative works” of the original songs, which means that they enjoy the same protection. But Balch responds to this by saying “when you are jamming with a friend and you show him/her the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement? What about if you helped him/her remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin … [is that] infringement?”

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