Light Fingers, Heavy Fines 

A new breed of teenage punk is starving America's rock stars.

  • Eric Lister
Parents, be warned! Children, watch out! A new scourge sweeping the country threatens to seduce innocent music fans into a life of crime!

It starts with something as simple as a catchy new pop song, and it ends in federal prison. It goes by the name of "illegal guitar tablature," and the devil himself spawned it.

Until the early '90s, guitar tablature existed as a relatively innocuous form of music worship. Amateur and professional guitar players could go to their local Guitar Center and pay up to $30 for a book of easy-to-read numbers, arranged on a series of lines representing the strings over a fretboard. If you put your fingers where the numbers said, you could legally cover a famous Led Zeppelin or Green Day song.

Then the internet, with its series of interconnected tubes, started corrupting America. As the web grew through the late '90s, crazed, misanthropic youths took it upon themselves to figure out the chords to popular songs and e-mail their little gangster friends about it. Faster than the noble Music Publishers' Association could stop them, these little thugs created entire websites of free, user-generated tablature. At last count, some of the biggest ones, like the On-Line Guitar Archive (formerly at OLGA.net), had 34,000 songs that millions of criminal guitar students could learn each year. As you might imagine, food started disappearing off the tables of rock stars everywhere.

Initially, the Music Publishers' Association was so busy supporting the fight waged by the Recording Industry Association of America against terrorist grandmas and students illegally downloading music that it didn't marshal the resources to fight the evil tabulators. But 2006 will go down as the year that turned the tide.

In January, 14 years after OLGA's birth, the music publishers declared war on free tab, saying that jail time was in order for the purveyors of lyric sites and their users. "Anyone who patronizes these illegal Web sites is stealing just as if he or she walked out of the music store with sheet music or a guitar," the MPA stated on its website.

By midsummer, cease-and-desist letters from the trade group had shut down several key providers, including OLGA and Guitar Tab Universe. Today, valiant corporate efforts have scattered the rebels to the winds. They are now trying to regroup for a legal challenge they cannot afford, while the communists and socialists who think "information wants to be free" chatter online and in print. The liberal rag The New York Times weighed in on the topic in August, followed by the even more lefty NPR. User-generated interpretations are free speech and a fair use of copyrighted material, say most tablature supporters -- also likely fans of Hugo Chavez for president in 2008.

The MPA responded: "Thousands of users derive substantial economic benefits by getting reams of sheet music . . . for free and in the process displacing millions of dollars in sales and royalties which would have gone to support the creators and copyright owners of the works utilized." Though the issue has yet to see a courtroom, the MPA states, "this is not an activity that courts are likely to determine constitutes fair use."

Of course, the socialists continue to fight for criminal tabulators. Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the intellectual-property think tank Public Knowledge incessantly challenge 21st-century crusades to tax and license user-generated content. "There really is a question of whether it's technically illegal or not," Gigi B. Sohn, Public Knowledge's executive director, says. "But the broader question is 'Why don't these companies see this as an opportunity to get more fans, rather than as an opportunity to alienate their biggest ones?' These are people who love music, and they're telling them to go to hell."

"Go to hell!" is right. And that also goes for all you music teachers who xerox legal sheet music and hand it out to sixth graders at band practice. You're illegally distributing copyrighted material, making biscuits disappear from the mouths of Metallica, and God will get you one day.

The MPA has yet to line up big-name musicians to assail the teenagers trying to learn pop songs. But give it time. Until then, all you hippy-dippy artists like Dave Matthews and Moby who think user-sharing isn't a bad thing need to watch out. First they come for your music, then your tab -- then they'll come for your gear and your nervous system. And you, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth: You're dead to me. You said, "Lots of respect for all you boys and girls out there who tab out songs like all the time. You bring rock and roll music closer to the people."

Way to aid and abet naive criminals like Julian Quirino, a sales associate and guitar player at the Guitar Center in El Cerrito, California, one of the East Bay's biggest retailers of printed tablature. In Quirino's twisted worldview, free tablature hasn't affected sales at Guitar Center, and it will never go away online.

"Since OLGA's shut down, not a single person has come in going, 'Man, I really need this tab, and now I can't find it online,'" he says. "The stuff's not blowing out the door. Nine times out of 10, it is for younger guitar players. It's bought as an add-on. It's not a big aspect of sales here."

Tell that to the MPA, whose yearly bottom line, now $113 million, has been shrinking since 1905, no doubt because of them newfangled chalkboard thingies people started using back then. Hey, it's hard to keep ahead of the criminals, and even Quirino admits it. "If I really want to learn something, I can still find it," he says. "It's a hydra. Cut off one head, and there's six more to go."

Serial beheadings will begin soon enough, Quirino. You'd better learn to straighten up, fly right, and avoid those damned OLGA mirror sites, FTP bins of free tablature, and overseas servers unbound by our fair country's 19th-century copyright laws.

Parents, children, educators: This is not going away. Monitor your spawn and yourself. Get permission for everything you do, and send a check to the RIAA and the MPA. Get permission before you make a video for YouTube. Get permission to post lyrics to a fan site. And get permission before you screen one of those funeral montages featuring pictures of the deceased over someone else's copyrighted music. That's not your music! Your crime will haunt your loved one in a long, fiery afterlife.

Remember: Every time you download the chords to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," you're liable for up to $15,000 in fines, and Courtney Love becomes a bit less able to afford Vicodin. This crime hurts us all.


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