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The Pitched Battle

[whitespace] Mike Ness of Social Distortion Guitar anti-hero: Mike Ness of Social Distortion rides the steel breeze.

Greg Allen

Guitar pirates of the Internet mourn the loss of bootlegged sheet music

By Robert Downes

FOR GUITARISTS, the On Line Guitar Archive (OLGA) was a buried treasure found on the Internet--a collection of more than 26,000 guitar tablatures, chords, and lyrics that allowed amateur musicians to learn the songs of everyone from Abba to ZZ Top.

For six years, it was a joy ride for guitarists trolling the 'net. OLGA (www.olga.net) and its mirror sites around the world received up to 200,000 visitors per week, and as many as 10,000 guitarists contributed tab transcriptions of popular songs to the archive. (Tablatures are a simplified way of writing music, with notes corresponding to each of the six guitar strings.) But on June 9, 1998, the music died when OLGA was forced to cease distributing its archive under the threat of copyright violations.

The guitar pirates of the Internet have been battling to get their treasure back ever since.

It all began 10 years earlier, when computer-savvy guitarists began trading song tablatures and lyrics through various Usenet newsgroups. In 1992, James Bender created OLGA as an archive of the Usenet postings at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Immensely popular, mirror OLGA sites began popping up around the world. One could choose from dozens of sites in locations as diverse as Kentucky, Germany, and New Zealand. OLGA stayed under the radar screen of the music publishing business until October 1995, when Thorn EMI, the British division of EMI Music Publishing, moved to shut down a mirror site in England. Several months later, EMI's office in New York went on the legal attack against the University of Nevada, claiming that OLGA's transcriptions represented a breach of copyright and a threat to the music publishing industry. In a letter from its attorneys, EMI Publishing notified the university that it would "employ all available means" to protect its copyrights.

In response, the University of Nevada caved in, shutting down the site in February 1996.

The good news for guitarists, however, was that by 1996 there were dozens of mirror OLGA sites scattered around the world, many based at libraries, colleges, and universities. OLGA also found a new temporary home. The bad news, however, was that the music publishing industry went on a search-and-destroy mission to root them out. Along with the legal muscle of EMI, the guitar pirates of OLGA found themselves faced by the Harry Fox Agency and the National Music Publishers Association.

THE HARRY FOX AGENCY was established in 1927 by the NMPA as a watchdog group to monitor and license music. Today it represents more than 20,000 American music publishers and licenses music on records, tapes, and CDs. The agency began contacting educational institutions around the world and threatening them with legal action unless the mirror sites were shut down. Most sites raised the white flag and fell on their swords as soon as the term "lawsuit" was mentioned.

To add injury to insult, OLGA itself was forced to quit distributing its archive of songs to the remaining mirror sites last June "in response to the threat of a federal summons from the Harry Fox Agency, who allege that the files in OLGA are breaches of copyright." Another outfit, the International Lyrics Server, was also forced to shut down, denying musicians the words to more than 116,000 songs. Since then, the ILS has done some legal homework and is planning an online reincarnation as Songfile.
com under a licensing agreement with music publishers.

That's not all: Midi Haven, an audio site that features popular songs played by amateur musicians, was also quashed in what seems to be an across-the-board legal attack on amateur musicianship (or, a spirited defense of professional musicians' royalties, depending on how you wish to look at it).

Given its labor-of-love, non-profit nature in which no money changes hands, defenders of OLGA say that music publishers are being unfair to the typical living-room guitarist who downloads songs for the joy of playing. "The tab files are often a guitarist's interpretation of a song," says Chris Mason, who operated an OLGA mirror site at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before it was shut down. "Some, certainly not all, of the songs represented are copyrighted."

MASON AND OTHER OLGA defenders note that copyright law on the Internet is still in its infancy, and there are no legal precedents to say what creative property is protected in cyberspace.

"The OLGA administrators sought legal counsel regarding the copyright issue," Mason says. "Legal opinions varied wildly, from OLGA being in clear violation of copyright to not being in violation at all, and several [attorneys] said it was simply too novel a situation to tell."

OLGA supporters have launched an online petition drive, collecting signatures from around the world. Many fans are also venting their rage on the Internet, as is the case of the anonymous author of "The Harry Fox Agency Sucks!" website. "I just decided I would use my freedom of speech to say how much the Harry Fox agency and the MNPA SUCKS!!" the site proclaims. "Next these people will be down at my house saying I can't play a song on my guitar unless I pay them off!!! These people are unfair and money hungry."

At this point, however, legal might seems to be on the side of the music publishing industry. "If you post sheet music on the Web, it's clearly copyright infringement," says Boston attorney Lee Gesmer, a specialist in high technology and computer law, quoted in Network World.

OLGA has been incorporated as a charitable organization and is collecting funds for its legal battle. And despite its official closure, at least seven renegade sites in Belgium, California, Poland, Australia, Slovakia, New Jersey, and South Africa are still making songs available to guitarists.

"OLGA will consider licensing only as a last resort, and we're not quite there yet," states a notice on the home page. "So for the meantime, guitar-players across the net will have to hang on a little longer."

So, if you've been putting off learning a few tunes by the Stones, Pink Floyd, or the Meat Puppets, to name a few of the hundreds of bands listed in the OLGA, you might want to fire up your modem and start downloading songs ASAP: in the face of a terrific legal challenge, no one knows how long the remaining renegade OLGA sites will last.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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