Sep 132006
Authors: Drew Haugen

First, they shut down the free Napster – the real Napster. OK. No more free music, I get it. But now, I try to learn music, and the music publishing industry breathes fire at the notion.

This time, they’ve clearly overstepped the boundary between education and profitable information.

Even though I’ve been making music for most of my life, I still struggle with sheet music. Especially when it comes to clefs, key signatures and time measures, it can complicate learning music. Also, for most of the music I listen to and choose to learn, sheet music is not available. All I have is the artists’ recordings and tablature.

A series of dashes, numbers, letters and symbols that tells musicians where to place their fingers on the frets of their instruments, tablature translates music into an easily readable and writable format. “Tab” can be written using any standard word processor, although there are tab-writing programs as well.

Online tablature Web sites host hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tablature submissions by musicians who, like myself, listen to the music, ‘figure it out’ on their instruments, and submit the song in ‘tab’ format for the benefit of other musicians’ learning.

Rhythm instruments like guitar, bass and mandolin are the most popular instruments for tab, and many Web sites feature peer rating systems for “good” tab versus “bad” tab; inaccurate versus semi- or accurate.

Tablature affords me the ability to listen to a song, find the tab and learn it myself. Whether a complex drum beat or a flamenco guitar piece, tablature can be found.

Most popular tab Web sites also feature guides on how to read tab, guitar lesson links and information about bands, music and instruments.

But while recently searching for some Death Cab for Cutie tab on the Web site, I encountered the same message for every tab I tried to open: “Due to recent controversy regarding the legality of free guitar tabs on the Internet, MXtabs is temporarily unable to display this guitar tablature. We hope to be able to offer guitar tabs again in the very near future.”

This begs the question: “Where’s my Cab tab?!”

The Music Publishers’ Association has recently adopted the position that all online free tablature is illegal, and that operators of Web sites offering free tabs should face fines and imprisonment. As it turns out, has closed down until a decision or compromise can be reached.

On July 17, another prominent tab site, Guitar Tablature Universe, posted a letter on its Web site stating that it had been threatened with legal action from the National Music Publishers’ Association on the basis “sharing tablature constitutes copyright infringement.”

Similar to the crackdown Napster experienced from recording companies in 2000 and 2001, the music publishing industry is seeking to hack away at an online community of free educational exchange of musical knowledge.

Why am I not surprised? Large companies that control the copyrights of hundreds of artists want the royalties due to the proliferation of their artists’ music.OK.

But the thing is, little profit is being made from online tablature. In an interview with NPR for an Aug. 7 segment on the issue, computer programmer Rob Balch, who runs Guitar Tab Universe, said he runs just enough ads to pay for his site’s Web hosting costs. He also said that when he received a ‘scary’ letter from lawyers, he called back and wanted to discuss legally licensing copyrights for tab, but the NMPA wanted no discussion on the topic.

I can’t believe that the NMPA, MPA and other industry groups are so bull-headed as to think that ripping into the free online tablature community will protect the copyrights of their artists and, thus, their profits.

Before the days of universal Internet access and tablature popularity, the main resource for learning music was artists’ books of sheet music (still available in music stores today). But to the best of my knowledge, they never were and never will be big sellers. This is simply because of the fact that many artists don’t produce these books, and also that they are expensive. Tab didn’t hurt these sales because there wasn’t any significant demand for this sheet music anyways.

Online tablature does not lose revenue for artists or publishing companies, but rather generates revenue through increased popularity and interest in the artists’ music.

Any musician knows that the single biggest element for success as an artist is “getting heard” – having people hear your music.

What an outrageous thought, that people would listen to music and then want to play it, sing it and enjoy it in their own way.

Next up on the industry’s agenda: Making sure copyrights are not infringed by listening to music. It’s dangerous stuff.

Drew Haugen is a senior international studies major. His column will appear Wednesdays in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to

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