It's no wonder that the Internet has become a battleground for the entertainment industry and copyright law — I gather that a majority of people use their computers primarily for entertainment. Or they spend so much time working on their computers that they need a way to bring their entertainment to the platform. Either way you look at it, it seems that as soon as one fire is doused, another flares up. The first big wave of controversy started with Napster and that silly file sharing business. The debate raged so long that I wrote papers about it in high school, and graded essays about it when I started teaching college.
I can't really offer an opinion as to the right or wrong of a service like Napster. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I've enjoyed the free music that file sharing offers, but I'd also be lying if I didn't say that now as a full grown adult I understand the ethical problem that it produces. Just because we have the technology to to something doesn't mean the we have the ethical or moral right to do it. But I don't want to get too far into whether or not we're dangling from a precipice as a society.
I actually admired the justification that most consumers used in taking advantage of Napster, that the product was bad. Since we are a consumer-based culture and we are inundated with advertising designed to work on our brains in the most insidious of ways just to get into our pocketbooks, I thought it was rather punk rock of my fellow consumers to flip the script. Of course I don't endorse ethical backsliding. Such a practice should be curbed as much as possible, as it weakens character, which leads to a whole host of other societal ills.
But as soon as Napster was bought out and made available for purchase, a new beast loomed on the horizon — BitTorrent. I'm not sure exactly what bit torrents are, but I know that whole DVDs, albums, and software programs are now available for download at no charge to me. Not that I would ever use such a service. I'm just acknowledging its existence. Now the legalities of this service aren't quite as omnipresent as the buzz about Napster was… though litigations are already circulating through high priced attorneys' hands. Perhaps this is because the issues of file sharing and technology and intellectual property are now a part of our everyday vocabulary.
Or perhaps the lack of outrage at the practice of sharing DVDs with mass audiences before they even hit theatres comes from the fact that movies are a different beast to the consumer. People love to watch the flickering images, and the people that make those images are on much firmer ground when it comes to issues of intellectual property and money in the bank. Bands make most of their money touring, record companies keep a majority of what comes from record sales. Those pesky recoupables. But DVD sales are one of the major ways that movies make money, especially lower budget independent features that get by on word of mouth as opposed to a lot of advertising. Those are the kind of movies I like to watch, so I'll admit I'm biased right now.
But what's really getting under my skin at the moment is neither one of these copyright infringement practices. Instead what has me puzzled is why my favorite online guitar tablature archives are shutting down left and right. These are sites that I've been visiting for tabs since before I ever knew how to download an MP3 from Limewire. Olga.net, the online guitar archive is largely responsible for my ability to play guitar. If it weren't for the poorly-tabbed Hole and PJ Harvey songs archived there I would have given up hope on barre cords and the circle of fifths long ago.
It seems, though, that the Music Publishers Association (MPA) has decided recently that guitar tablature sites that offer free tablatures online are violating the songwriter's copyright. It's not clear what prompted it, but someone did some digging, and found that since the early nineties when online archives started to get big, music books containing music and guitar tablature were selling significantly less. So they say that they are going to reduce copyright infringement by shutting down these sites. Which will force beginning guitarists to go out and buy the tablature books. Apparently songwriters are really hurting for these profits. And that's what this must be about, the selling of the paper with the tablature on it. Because heaven knows that a cover band is not dipping into Kiss's profits anytime soon. Sorry dude, not even fifty thousand Kiss cover bands is dipping into those profits.
What really has me bothered, though, is this notion that the tablature for a song is somehow copyrighted. We're not talking about the actual music itself, we're talking about the notation of a melody. That means that if I hear a song on the radio and I identify the chord progression and show it to my roommate, or, say, write it down and email it to her, I've just committed a copyright infringement.
However as a musician this is one of the most vital ways that we communicate with each other, imitation, experimentation, extrapolation. These online sites become a place where musicians debate how a certain sound is achieved, which techniques are most efficient, and other debates that rage on in an artistic community. If I try and play someone else's song anywhere for any kind of money, you better believe I'm going to have to face the music later, but how am I, in the privacy of my own home infringing on the Rolling Stones' copyright if I want to learn how to play "Angie" to amuse myself?
The real cause of my ire isn't so much the idea of copyright infringement though, its the excuses that lawyers and businessmen representing large companies throw out to the bewildered masses. They frequently claim that the artists are being hurt by something that the fans are doing, making everyone bow their head collectively and sulk away feeling guilty for somehow undermining the very thing that they love so much. But really, the bottom line seems to be that no one really cared until someone noticed not so much that money was missing, but that there was potentially more money to be made by the publishing companies that produces these songbooks. I'm just waiting for the first karaoke lawsuit to hit the courts.
Some links of interest: