Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Maybe not so Cut and Dry…

In a recent post, I weighed in about my views on not paying for media that someone else holds the copyright on.  Essentially, I take issue with somebody using technology to make a copy of something that is intended to be sold so that they don’t have to buy it.

I’ve been a guitar player now for a few decades on and off.  I would hardly call myself an artist, but I enjoy playing from time to time and recently, some friends and I have spent some time banging away together and enjoying each others company while playing a few songs that we’ve each learned.

I think the majority of the songs that I’ve learned have come from playing the old jam sessions with much better players than I who have taken the time to show me some chord progressions and fingerings and I pick up a small percentage of it that makes it sound reasonably good.  In some cases, I’ve looked at what is called a ‘guitar tab’ to figure out a song.

A guitar tab is when someone who has some good talent with a guitar listens to a song and writes down what they hear in a format that other guitar players can easily read and mimic to be able to learn to play a song.  Very similar to my experience with my more gifted friends, I initially saw nothing wrong with the practice, when my wife asked me how my beliefs on copyright protection impacted my used of these Guitar Tabs.

Its easy to just ignore the issue and keep on going.  There are plenty of sites on the Internet which publish these tabs and if my friends have them all printed off, I’m not really doing anything wrong by reading them and playing them…am I?

Surely I am not infringing on someone’s rights by interpreting one of these tabs and playing the music.  Wouldn’t that mean that by singing along while driving my car and listening to the radio I’m doing the same thing?

Apparently, some music industry lawyers believe that guitar tabs are infringing on the rights of their clients.  The Online Guitar Archive ( has a notice on their website that they are essentially the ‘Offline’ Guitar Archive while they duke it out and others have followed suite in an effort to save their litigated bacon.

I came across a very good article that examines US copyright law and its relation to guitar tabs specifically.  This 32 page document looks at copyrights and debates whether or not a guitar tab site constitutes ‘fair use’ of copy written material since a) the purpose and character of the reproduced work is different.  b) the tab is intended as an educational tool as described in the preamble to the description of ‘fair use’ in the act.  c) Using a tab does not impact or impede the copyright holders ability to profit from their work and d) the copyright holder would (and have in some cases) reasonably not object to the particular use.

In my opinion, I think that the existence and distribution of guitar tabs is fundamentally different than making a duplicate of digital media and using it instead of the original, but I have to stop short of saying that one is right and the other is wrong because to date, I don’t think anyone has successfully challenged the letter and intent of the law in this regard.  If it is wrong, is it then wrong for me to sing along with the radio?