A Note to Bathroom Singers

Since none of you ever illegally downloaded an .mp3 or a video, or read a pirated book, this one is for you. I would like to warn you chaps that even bathroom singing could become an illegal activity, along with whistling, if things continue in this fashion as Slashdot reports: In a rather bizarre move, the National Music Publishers Association and The Music Publishers Association of America have decided to take on guitar tabs. They have served notices to a number of tab websites for infringment of copyright and IP. As a result many guitar tab websites are twiddling their thumbs and have restricted access till they figure out what to do.

Guitar tabs as opposed to sheet music are diagrams of notes and chords for people too lazy to read music and are usually transcribed by ear by some 'talented' musician. They aren't direct copies, but interpretations of the melody, chords, etc. which the publishers claim are an infringement of the artists's creative copyright over the melody. I have tried to write tabs and it does take a few hours of effort to get all the notes and chords right. It's not a simple case of running a copier, or dragging and dropping songs from one folder to another.

The publishers' claim that these 'illegal' sites make money off banner ads without permission. The publishers now want to make money from their own 'official' sites. This seems fair enough. Often Tom is making money off Dick's unpaid labour of love of creating tabs from Harry's song?

What seems fuzzy is the definition of the song IP. A large number of these tabs are often wrong, is that a copyright violation? That gives our first workaround - a silly one, one that the lawyers will have for breakfast. Assume I make a change in the key of the song, or I make a tiny, obvious error in the tab; is it still a copy? Then can I then sue anyone who uses that tab for copying? If a song sounds like Stairway to Heaven then it is obviously stolen even if it an annoying MIDI file or cell phone tone. Fine.

But where do you draw the line? At the melody? The song arrangement? Section of music? Individual riffs? Combinations of notes? Chord changes? Aren't all songs mutated copies of other songs? What is really original? Who is that guy who wrote the first I-IV-V change? He should make billions.

A simpler definition is: as long as you don't profit from it, anything goes. The next time you are in the bathroom and whistling or humming away be aware that you are infringing on song IP. While that currently qualifies as fair, personal use it is still use of IP without permission. Who's to say that in the future you might need the artist's/publisher's explicit permission everytime you play that song at house party? On a brighter note, if you do happen to be a musical genius and your neighbour is whistling a tune you composed. Sue his ass off!

A good idea would be to write a program to write a song that has every musical note, in every major and minor key, with all possible combinations of rhythm and chord changes. Yeah! Heck it will be ten miles long, but then I will have created every song in the universe.


Beetle said...

The problem I have with the destruction of all the online tab sites, is that the way that a tab site operates is no different than when my guitar teacher (who was getting paid) wrote out the tabs to songs that I wanted to learn.

Are we at a point that I can't scribble down a song for a friend on the back of a cocktail napkin?

Lauren Kaiser the president of the Music Publishers Association and the person behind the blocking of tab sites, is also demanding jail time in addition to fines.

Jail time for posting tabs? Wow.

Hirak said...

Are we at a point that I can't scribble down a song for a friend on the back of a cocktail napkin?

You can, but he can't!
* *
This was one aspect that I didn't mention in the post: One of the reasons/excuses for tabs is that they are valuable learning tools (guitar teachers know that). Not everyone is gifted with a musical ear. I am not aware if the great guitarists use/d tabs that much, but for the amateur there are one of the best things out there. If it weren't for tabs you would have a lot less people playing music.

Ashutosh said...

this after "happy birthday" was copyrighted...

Anonymous said...