Called guitar tablature, or tab, the notations indicate where players should put their fingers. Books filled with tab are available in shops, but a number of websites make tab notations available for free. Now trade bodies are taking action against those sites.
The New York Times reports that the Music Publishers' Association (MPA) and the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) have shut down several websites or forced them to remove all tabs using threats of copyright law suits. The sites are typically fan-run and not significant profit-making enterprises.
Some of the tab notations are copied from paid-for books, but most of them are worked out by players just from listening to performances of songs. Some legal commentators in the US suggest that tabs generated by users may have free speech protection.
"People can get [tab] for free on the internet, and it's hurting the songwriters," MPA president Lauren Keiser told the New York Times. The trade associations represent publishers, who share royalties from tab book sales with the composers of the material.
Many of the websites that publish tabs are online communities rather than businesses and claim that much of the music involved would never have tabs created commercially, since only the most popular material is published in tab books.
"The company which owns this website has been indirectly threatened with legal action by the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) as well as the Music Publishers' Association (MPA) on the basis that sharing tablature constitutes copyright infringement," said a statement at one of these sites, Guitar Tab Universe, from its manager Rob Balch. "At what point does describing how one plays a song on guitar become an issue of copyright infringement? This website, among other things, helps users teach each other how they play guitar parts for many different songs. This is the way music teachers have behaved since the first music was ever created. The difference here is that the information is shared by way of a new technology: the internet."
Publishers argue that copyright legislation protects the tablature because they are "derivative works" of the original songs, which means that they enjoy the same protection. So far none of the sites has fought the orders to stop publishing the tabs.
"When you are jamming with a friend and you show him/her the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement? What about if you helped him/her remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin ... infringement?" said Balch in his statement. "If he/she calls you later that night on the phone or e-mails you and you respond via one of those methods, are you infringing? I don't know."