The Chicago Tribune reports:
What's next? I hope they leave harp pedaling charts alone.
Rob Balch sees himself as a music educator of sorts, and the thousands of guitarists who have flocked to his Web site would no doubt agree. At Balch's Guitar Tab Universe, he posted the chords and finger positions for rock songs--all the information needed to crank out a version of anything from the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" to the latest U2 single.
Music publishers, though, see Balch very differently: He's helping people steal the copyrighted sheet music they sell. So over the past several months, they effectively shut down Guitar Tab Universe and several other sites like it.
The tussle over the online guitar tab, which is short for tablature, is another manifestation of the great clash between the freewheeling Internet and the cold reality of business law. It pits an industry struggling to combat what it sees as piracy against the Web ethos of swapping information for free. A similar battle played out in the much bigger recorded music business, with the industry scoring significant victories. But just as the record industry still struggles to contain illegal song swapping, guitarists can still easily find free tabs online.
"I think we've made a noble effort, but it's somewhat of a drop in the bucket," said Larry Morton, president of Milwaukee-based Hal Leonard Corp., regarded by many as the world's largest printed music publisher.
Sheet music is a $1 billion a year business globally, Morton said. It's not clear how much revenue the industry is losing because of free tab sites. "But [tablature] is a significant part of the print music business," he said. "We produce hundreds and hundreds of guitar books with tabs." Until the Web came along, the sheet music industry's biggest enemy was the photocopier, Morton said. Free tab sites, which allow musicians to post and share song structures, "are the photocopier on steroids." So earlier this year, the Music Publishers' Association and the National Music Publishers' Association, which respectively represent print music and recorded music publishers, went on the offensive. They sent letters to nearly 20 tab sites, ones believed to be the largest, threatening legal action. Balch's site was one of them, and he acquiesced.
...Belfor and other guitarists said the idea that tab sites are illegal seems absurd. "If I write out tabs for a song I've heard by ear and then share with other people, it doesn't seem like I am infringing on intellectual property."
Lawyers say there may be an argument to be made for a sheet music exemption for educational purposes, though usually that applies to song excerpts only. Music publishers, though, are adamant: Tablature incorporates elements of an original work, and the law protects such "derivative" uses of copyrighted material.