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, is already gone; the URL points to a song review site. has taken down all its downloads (example). See the forum discussion at (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.

  • carmen

    this is too funny…cracking down on ASCII text. maybe they can add a 95 cent surcharge onto CDs to pay for this..

    maybe they'll strongarm google into removing all the old USENet posts containing tabs while theyre at it, and pester,,

    anything to do some actual A&R for the first time in a few decades..

  • admin

    To be clear: part of the reason for the fuss is that this is the printed music publishers, not the music labels. Different licensing, different companies, and, most significantly — different fees. I think the score publishers have decided they want a piece of the action.

  • tristan

    "What if we turned the problem entirely on its head, and started with what artists wanted?"

    Well, it seems that one of my favorite artists, Ted Leo (of such exploits as Chisel and, his current band, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists) is doing just that.


    …The music industry kills the music industry.
    I don't do tabs, but in anticipation of the inevitable, I'm requesting that those who HAVE done them, send them my way so that I can start archiving them (after CORRECTING them, you sloppy punks! -ed.) for an eventual offical tablature site. As I receive them, I'll start listing what I have and what I need. Thanks!
    Remember, when tabs are illegal, only criminals will have tabs.

    27 Jan 2006"


  • Has there been any update in the news on this? Any suits filed by the music industry yet?

    I was thinking of starting a tab site to promote some of my music-related blogs, but now maybe not. Who knows.

    Thanks for the heads up … -dm

  • Will E

    I wrote the name of a song down on a piece of paper the other day…I hope I don't get sued…without these tab sites, I wouldn't be as good as I am on the guitar(still learning-self taught).

  • Rick

    I'm a musician and 51 years old. I've watched so many musicians get ripped off by record labels and publishers it isn't funny. So I have to laugh when they say they are protecting the artists. Tabs are not copyrighted music. They are musical shorthand. Many of them on these sights are not even correct or totally correct. These guys are making them selves extinct in the age of technology. They think this will help them it won't. They are alienating that kid that buys an album from his favorite band and just wants to learn some of their songs and does not have a fortune to spend to do it. The times are a changining get used to it !!!