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Legal action against traders of MP3s and videos? That’s so last year. 2006 will be the year the music publishing industry cracks down on online lyrics, song notation, and tablature. We’re not talking small lawsuits: the head of the publishing association promises jail time for site owners.


Guitar tablature, transcribed and distributed in ASCII text format, was one of the first forms of distributed music on the Web — long before MP3s. By printing out the text files, guitarists could see tablature renditions of chord progressions from a wide variety of music. More recently, notation software like G7, Sibelius, and Finale added tab import capabilities, and even encouraged potential software customers to take advantage of online tab resources.


Lyric and guitar tab sites (and, often, tab with lyrics) were long allowed to flourish while publishers looked the other way. That arrangement isn’t going to last much longer.



The legal problem is that much of this music is protected under copyright, and distributing tab is a copyright violation. As reported by BBC, the publishers have finally decided to take action. The Music Publisher’s Association wants to make 2006 its banner crackdown year, and promises to put site owners in jail. That got the attention of the sites: so far, mxtabs.net is already gone; the URL points to a song review site. Powertabs.net has taken down all its downloads (example). See the forum discussion at Absolutepunk.net (filled with expletives), and, via digg, migrainehearatache commentary, all lamenting the loss of the tab sites. That’s just the beginning: other sites are going missing at an accelerating pace.


There are still plenty of song sites out there; a quick Google or Yahoo search for “guitar tab” or “lyrics” returns plenty of operating sites. But their days may be numbered, as the MPA promises to go after “very big sites” that people “think are legitimate and are very, very popular,” MPA chief Lauren Keiser is quoted by BBC.


Lyric sites have entered the crosshairs, as well. Even a Mac widget for searching lyrics sites, pearLyrics, has been targetted by publishers. The EFF stepped in in that case, and appears to have caused publisher Warner/Chappell to backpedal on some of their legal claims. We’ll be following this story as it evolves.


Publishers have a right to protect their copyright, but it’s extremely questionable in this case whether fan-produced transcriptions are a major threat. In fact, since the readers of this site are on the production end, let’s ask an entirely different question: putting aside publishers getting into bloody battles with fans, how would you ideally like your music distributed online? Do you want fans making transcriptions of your songs? Do you think lyrics, tablature, or notation could generate revenue for popular acts? (The MPA’s sudden interest seems to suggest that publishers want at least royalties collection, a la ASCAP and Harry Fox, which could actually mean the best of both worlds — the sites would pay a blanket license, and fans could still generate transcriptions.)


The fundamental problem repeating itself is that publishers always make an argument about the “benefit of the artist” and “artist’s livelihoods” — then engage in costly, publicity-dampening battles run largely by their lawyers. On the other hand, we have the intellectual property “progressivist” movement, some of whom seem to think everything should be free — an argument worth considering, but again formulated without any real consideration of what benefits artists and creators. What if we turned the problem entirely on its head, and started with what artists wanted?


Hint: that’s you.