Music Industry Goes After Guitar Tablature Sites

Many people learning to play guitar go to the Internet to find amateur sheet music called tablature. Now the music publishing industry is trying to shut some sites down with threats of legal action for alleged copyright violations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Many people learning to play guitar have figured out how to find the chords to songs they want to play over the Internet for free. They go to Web sites where other guitar players post a kind of quick and dirty sheet music called tablature.

The sites are proliferating and attracting millions of visitors. Now the music publishing industry is trying to shut sites down with threats of legal action. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

Forty-year-old school administrator Rudy Ford(ph) is at his guitar teacher's apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the music stand, he's got some tablature he found online for a song he wanted to learn.

Mr. RUDY FORD (Guitar Student): So it goes...

(Singing) Take my love, take my land.

ARNOLD: Its not formal sheet music. It's much rougher than that. It uses dashes, numbers, and letters to represent the strings, frets, and chords. You need to have heard the song before to really be able to play it. But it's enough of a guide for Ford and his teacher, Sam Davis, to have some fun with it.

Mr. FORD: (Singing) Burn the land, and boil the sea. You can't take the sky from me.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

ARNOLD: Ford, the student, says he's always going online to look up guitar tabs.

Mr. FORD: Oh, absolutely. It's really given me a sense of the fact that I've made some progress in my guitar.

Mr. SAM DAVIS (Guitar Teacher): Which is amazing. You know, I think back to when I was a kid. You know, I was - you had to buy the record and sit down with the record and listen to it again and again and again. I started...

ARNOLD: But not everybody thinks it's amazing. Some experts say that many of the Web sites appear to be infringing copyright. The more detailed the tablature is, the more likely it's a violation. But they also say the law is friendlier to a non-profit, online community of musicians educating each other than it is to a commercial site.

Jacqueline Charlesworth is a lawyer with the National Music Publisher's Association. She says the NMPA is starting to go after commercial sites. It's sending them letters basically telling them to remove any copyrighted material or they may face legal action.

Ms. JACQUELINE CHARLESWORTH (Attorney): Sites that have hundreds of guitar tabs or sheet music - often with lyrics - where they're running ads and the owner of the site is basically making money off other peoples' copyrighted work.

Mr. ROBERT BALCH(ph) (Owner of GuitarTabUniverse.com): Hey, I'd love to say that's true.

ARNOLD: Twenty-five-year-old computer programmer Robert Balch runs one of the bigger sites, GuitarTabUniverse.com. Even though the site gets two million page views a day, Balch says he runs just enough ads to cover the fees he pays for server space. And Balch says after getting a scary letter from an industry lawyer, he called back and offered to figure out a way he could license or sell tabs legitimately.

Mr. BALCH: They flat-out want no discussions, want no licensing deals, nothing.

ARNOLD: Balch says he's temporarily pulled most of the tabs off his site, but he's getting legal advice on how to put a lot of them back up and stay within the law. And if the industry wants to sue him, he says bring it on.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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