Tangled Webs

   The Day the Music Died
Issue 3.06
Aug 01, 1998

A Long, Long Time Ago

In what now seems a lifetime ago, I was a professional musician. Not too long before that, I was a high-school kid with a guitar. And like all high-school kids with guitars, I spent quite a few afternoons listening to records trying to figure out what exactly my guitar heros were playing, and I used up the better part of my weekends comparing notes with friends who had spent the past week doing the same thing.

As is the case with almost all amateur guitarists, my friends and I were unable to read music, so what we figured out had to either be remembered or written down in a simplified musical notation called tablature. While nearly all guitarists can read tablature, which shows which fingers to place on which frets, they are nortariously unable to read standard musical notation. A long-standing industry joke has it that the only way to get a guitarist to turn down the volume is to put sheet music in front of him.

Generations of musicians have taught each other songs in this way, and with the popularization of computers, musicians started coming out of their garages and onto the Internet. As early as 1992, guitarists were exchanging advice and tablature in the rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature newsgroup, but the web boom that started in 1995 resulted in the On-Line Guitar Archive (OLGA) http://www.olga.net, a much more useful and comprehensive resource.

The Players Tried to Take the Field

OLGA began by simply archiving the transcriptions posted to the newsgroup, but soon took on its own life as a place guitarists could exchange advice and information on how to play songs. OLGA is maintained by a group of volunteers and no membership fees are charged. Is has become one of the best known and most mirrored sites on the web. According to OLGA administrator Cal Woods, at the beginning of June 1998, the archive contained over 30,000 tablature transcriptions submitted by over 20,000 individual musicians.

Frankly, most of the transcriptions are not very accurate. Some of them are laughably wrong and many seem to be the transcriber's idea of "what Clapton really meant to play." Of course, note-for-note accuracy is not the point. The whole process is about exchanging ideas, opinions and advice about music. It's about learning. I constantly found myself wishing that OLGA had existed back when I was still a high-school kid with a guitar.

Unfortunately, it was not to last.

The Harry Fox Agency, the legal arm of the National Music Publishers Association sent a letter to OLGA demanding that the site and all of its mirror sites be closed by June 8th or legal action would be taken. According to Cal Woods, the Harry Fox Agency was unwilling to discuss the matter or even to inform OLGA of the basis of the threatened legal action. The only information they were willing to provide was the deadline and the threat of a lawsuit.

All of the mirror sites had closed down by June 8th, and on June 9 the Harry Fox agency informed OLGA that it was be advising its clients to begin legal proceedings immediately. At 8:00 PM, the On-Line Guitar Archive was taken offline. According to the information available at the OLGA website, the HFA has not acknowledged the site's closure, will not comment on whether they still plan on filing a lawsuit, still will not explain what it sees as OLGA's crimes, and refuses to discuss licensing or other options.

I Saw Satan Laughing With Delight

The Harry Fox Agency, as the legal representative of the copyright holders, is probably within its rights to demand closure of OLGA. However, it's not the legality of the strong-arm tactics I find questionable, it's the rationale behind them.

It's actually quite hard to determine what the Harry Fox Agency has gained by intimidating OLGA into closing its doors. If the existence of OLGA resulted in any monetary loss it must have been insignificant. As I mentioned earlier, the archive's material is transcribed by ear and far from definitive. More important however, most of the archive's tablature is not commercially available. The market is far too small to profitably publish and distribute guitar tablature for most songs.

What I find most objectionable, however, is the Harry Fox Agency's implication that nearly all musicians, including those HFA claims to represent, are criminals. Under HFA's interpretation of copyright law, even scribbling down lyrics and chord changes so you can play guitar with your friends is illegal activity. However, Ed Murphy, President and CEO of the Harry Fox Agency and NAMP points out that such lawbreakers have little to fear since "We don't pursue inconsequential uses."

Copyright law was originally designed for the worthwhile purpose of providing a financial incentive for artists to create works. One has to wonder how it has been transformed into a body of law which makes teaching a friend a popular song criminal activity.

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
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