Battlepanda: Copyright gone wild


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Copyright gone wild

I am one pissed-off Battlepanda.

You see, I've always wanted to play the guitar. I've taken several approaches to this. I've tried to learn on my with one of those method books. I've tried getting skilled friends and family to teach me. I've even tried taking lessons on occasion, though they were generally a bit of a waste of time. Nothing, but nothing helped me improve as much as Kirk Lorange's website (

Kirk is a master finger-style guitarist. He puts up detail tabs of his awesome arrangements of the kind of songs we'd all like to play, as well as really useful support material. Each song is displayed with traditional notation, tabs, video, audio, and a half-speed midi version to play along with. It is a labor of love that completely blows anything I've found produced by the sheet-music industry out of the water. I was so pleased with my progress that I posted my hesitant rendition of the M.A.S.H. theme tune on one of the forums at guitarforbeginners, and recieved nothing in return but support and positive criticism, including feedback from Kirk himself. Since then, I've learnt a ton of songs through guitarforbeginners, and have been most gratified by how well they have been recieved by friends and family. In return for all this, I've only donated a measly $10 to Kirk. Not to excuse my stinginess, but I'm sure that many who take advantage of his tabs donate nothing at all.

There are other sites like Kirk's that have helped guitar players all over the internet. One of the most venerable is OLGA, a database of tabs submitted by enthusiasts all over the world; one of the most popular is Guitar Tabs Universe, ran by Rob Balch, who take enough ads to only cover the bandwidth costs. Both those websites are currently down as they face lawsuits from the Music Publisher's Association. I'm freaking out that Guitar for Beginners might be next.
MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed.

He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the internet but were "completely illegal".

Mr Keiser said he did not just want to shut websites and impose fines, saying if authorities can "throw in some jail time I think we'll be a little more effective".[snip]

"The Xerox machine was the big usurper of our potential income," he said. "But now the internet is taking more of a bite out of sheet music and printed music sales so we're taking a more proactive stance."

David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers' Association, added his concerns.

"Unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing," he said.

"Music publishers and songwriters will consider all tools under the law to stop this illegal behaviour."
What a ridiculously transparent justification for greedy, rent-seeking behavior. The traditional method of distribution for sheet music is so inefficient and haphazard that I challenge you to find more than the thinnest sliver of songs available in any given store. Hard to argue that the big, bad tab websites are taking the bread out of your mouths when you are not even offering that product in the marts of commerce. Why not go the whole hog and declare that everyone who's noodling along to 'Yesterday' after hearing it on the radio are breaking the law and guilty of copyright infringement?

Let's remind ourselves quickly of why copyright laws are there in the first place. They are they to keep the creativity going, to make sure that artists get their fair share of profits and are given an incentive to keep on creating. They are not there to protect dinosaur industries that create zero value. Artists in general won't care that their songs are tabbed -- how many pennies from the music publishing industries go to the actual songwriters anyhow? If anything, the desemination of their songs through amateur players probably shores up their popularity to some minor degree, which translates to gains from concerts tickets and some increased music sales. And besides, if we make it harder for the next generation of artists to learn from what's been done before, where will our new songs come from?

In short, this insanity has got to be sorted out. If we truly want to help songwriters benefit, let's reform the copyright process. The technology is now here to let them get paid directly (maybe sites like Kirks can kick in a share of their profits, such as it is, directly to the songwriters) instead of a thin cut through proxies like the sheet music industry. I know that I've disparaged Law and Economics before, but this seems like a great application for that kind of thinkings as property rights as opposed to human rights are concerned -- a tremendous amount of value is being extinguished so that the sheet-music industry can extort a petty sum inefficiently.