In her typically thoughtful column in Wired, Jennifer Granick makes a surprisingly inaccurate statement: "I had just read an article in The New York Times reporting that the Recording Industry Association of America was threatening to sue websites that publish guitar music tablature, or tabs, alleging copyright infringement." What's Next, Ramen Noodles?
It's not the RIAA that is threatening to sue guitar tab web sites. It's the NMPA, the National Music Publishers Association. Granick is not the first writer to make this error-- and it's not entirely inaccurate. There is definitely a large overlap between the NMPA and RIAA constituencies, especially because of consolidation. For example, Warner Music Group is the parent company of music publisher Warner Chapell and the Warner Brothers, Atlantic and Elektra music labels.
The RIAA is not force behind all anti-sharing actions concerning the internet. Only those concerning recorded music. Traditionally, the record labels and publishers are at odds with each other, since each are competing for slices of the music revenue pie.
NY Times: Now the Music Industry Wants Guitarists to Stop Sharing: "In the last few months, trade groups representing music publishers have used the threat of copyright lawsuits to shut down guitar tablature sites, where users exchange tips on how to play songs like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Highway to Hell” and thousands of others."
This all sounds very familiar. Joe Gratz (before leaving on a triparoundtheworld) dug up this Times article from 1996: Tablature Erasa: Guitar Archive Closed by Lawyers: "The University of Nevada at Las Vegas permanently pulled the plug on the central OLGA site on April 25, after suspending it in early February to review assertions by EMI Music Publishing that some of the tablatures electronically available there were an unlicensed usage of the company's songs."
Most guitar tabs are cheat sheets that let musicians know what chord changes form the underlying basis for a song. Sometimes the tabs include graphical instructions on how to play certain melodies on the guitar (but not actual notation.) Tab is incredibly frustrating to read if you know how to read music, because it is an awful medium for conveying rhythm. It is, however, an eminently useful medium for learning guitarists, as it provides more direction on how to play the song than sheet music alone.
Whereas sheet music contains precise notations of the melody of a piece of music, guitar tab contains either a bare sketch of the underlying chord changes or directions on what notes constitute the melody. It is generally possible to play a song based on the sheet music. It is incredibly difficult to recreate the song from even the most detailed guitar tab without listening to a recording of that song.
Guitar tab sites provide a way for community members to help each other figure out how to play songs. They are similar to fake books and the Real Book, which jazz musicians use to learn the standards. (The original Real Book circulated from Berklee College of Music in the 1970s and a licensed version was first released by Hal Leonard last year.) Penn State's Barry Kernfeld writes about Pop Song Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-History of Sampling.
Even though guitar tab sites offer reconstructions of songs, rather than copies, guitar tab generally does substitute for sheet music. While not a perfect substitute, for most rock and pop musicians, unlicensed tab is an acceptable substitute for sheet music.
Do guitar tab sites recast the original songs in a new light by simplifying the songs to their barest essence? Are tabs transformative?