Copyright police crack down on guitar players trading chords online

March 22, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

This morning I tried to visit a site called OLGA (on-line guitar archive), a place where I had often gone in past years to check out chord progressions for pop/rock tunes.  Many guitarists had worked out tunes as best they could, then posted them at this site.  Over the years, the contributions to the site had been inconsistent on OLGA.  Sometimes many of the chords were incorrect, but they served to get you started to figure the rest out.  Some of the others progressions were truly excellent. 

OLGA served as a cyber-place for thousands of guitarists to exchange chord arrangements for songs.  I’ve played guitar for many years, and this is exactly what guitarists do in person.  It is the best way to learn tunes—we exchange scribbled out chord progressions.

But we won’t do this any more on OLGA.  You see, the owners of the site received a “take down letter,” and that was the end of OLGA.  You can read the letter here.  What are the damages, if one is taken to court?  Up to $30,000.  According to this letter, these guitarists who were merely exchanging chord arrangements were a threat to the livelihood of professional musicians who created the songs.  Never mind that all of those professionals got to be professionals by trading chord progressions.

Here is the legal basis for the take down letter. 

Once again, the little person has been knocked around by big corporations.   I say this because people trying to learn how to strum tunes on their guitars don’t have the money to pay off politicians in order to have an exception carved for their own benefit.

What if you DO have millions to spend (i.e., Disney)?  There’s almost no limit to what money can buy.   If you are a corporation, you likely own lots of the intellectual property.  After all, you’ve squeezed it out of your employees over the years.  And whenever you publish a tune or a photo or movie, you now have the right to monopolize it for the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.  That’s the benefit of the 1998 “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

You might be wondering how this period got to be so incredibly long.  You wouldn’t be the first.  After all, 50 years ago, here is what was deemed fair:  “28 years, plus the work could be renewed for 47 years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. 

What is distressing to me is that there is no rational balance between the “rights” of corporate intellectual property owners and the right of society to freely (eventually) enjoy the cultural artifacts were made popular by the people, after all. 

Now we know that guitar players trading chord progressions are a menace to society!  Don’t think about it too much, though, or you’ll realize that all prominent guitarists have traded chord progressions. But now we know that this important part of educating future guitarists is highly illegal.  The horror . . .

Here’s a good article on how Disney obtained the best copyright laws money could buy.  Here’s another. 

In the meantime, I’ll be figuring out the chords to tunes more slowly, on my own.


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Category: Corruption, Law, Media, music, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Music publishers spew letters like that all over the place. That does not mean they should be ignored, but it also does not mean the publishers have a legally valid case. Is there any statutory or case law to show that chord progressions have sufficient creative content to be considered copyrightable subject matter? Does the U.S. Copyright Office grant copyright registrations for chord progressions? If so, then the website is arguably just as guilty as Napster was of copyright infringement; if not, then it is game over for the publishers, and the website should sue them for malicious prosecution if the case ever goes to court.

    The real problem is that music publishers have their heads way, way up their collective behinds when it comes to things like innovation and customer satisfaction. If they had any brains at all, they would be the ones creating websites like Napster and OLGA. They would be using new technologies to create new channels of distribution for their products, so that more people would want to buy and use what they have to sell. Unfortunately, they would rather sit on their butts and sling lawsuits at the innovators who are giving music lovers what the publishers are too lazy, stupid and belligerent to provide.

  2. Mary says:

    You know, with all these infringement lawsuits, I'm actually becoming skittish about merely being inspired by copyrighted material. Being rather stubborn, however, I've decided I must one-up the authors, musicians, and other creative types I'm inspired by and create works that are so far afield from the original works of inspiration that no one can actually tell what my source of inspiration was. Learning how to track down copyright holders and get permission helps, too. We simply must get more creative than tight-fisted copyright holders until we can bring some balance back to the law.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Check out this emerging ability of musicians to directly market their own music.… I think this is terrific–musicians can choose where to market and the lion's share of successful music will go to the musician. Beware, though, that options like this make the battle regarding net neutrality all the more important.

  4. Martin says:

    Erich, thank you for bringing this issue of net neutrality to my attention.

    If I read the original thread correctly, despite the fact that I am not an American and do not live or work in America, if I want to help keep the internet neutral I have to write to Congress about it.

    I thought it was called the world wide web? Why is it the US Congress that controls whether the net remains neutral?

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Martin: My understanding is that that American telecoms are the first gateway (and hence the first line of potential Internet filtering) for Americans who seek to connect to the Internet. You are right, though, that starving a website from American web users might affect the viability of that site for users worldwide. For the moment, the Internet content is not skewed by big American telecoms, but they have plans to take it over and control content, just as big corporations before them have taken over the content of newspapers, radio stations and television.

  6. Martin says:

    Let's suppose that a fictional telecommunications company called Big Tel get a licence to do two things. 1) Charge customers for the level of internet service they want. Paying top whack entitles any packages you send and any packages sent to you to go to the front of the queue. 2) Filter net content so that they can in effect censor the web according to their own tastes. Naturally, being Big Tel they are going to filter their business competitors, but they may also try to appeal to swathes of the population by filtering contentious types of content, say, pornography, gambling, alcohol, smoking or maybe even fundamentalist religious sites.

    Since it is not likely that only one company will be given such a licence, then all clones of Big Tel will be sending their own customers to the front of the queue, and their competitors customers to the back of the queue. But since Big Tel can only do this to packets going through their own servers, this means that one email on its journey across the web will almost by definition have to be at the front and the back of the queue several times. Since this is true for all emails for all customers don't we just end up with the same average speed?

    In two (or three) words, yes and no.

    There is a sense in which that will happen, BUT with the licence Big Tel and all its clones made mega-bucks out of giving you the same service you would have got before they had a licence. And there is a sense in which that will not happen because however many levels of service there are, a customer can always get better service by paying more. Which means that mega-rich companies will get super premier service while private individuals will get their emails delivered when there is a break in the corporate traffic.

    Ahhh, you mean net neutrality is not about it being content neutral; it’s about it being money neutral?

    Exactly, you got it. As with everything else in a capitalist society, the bottom line is always about the money.

    So how is content filtering about money?

    Content filtering will work in exactly the same way it does in other media. Some newspapers carry pictures of scantily clad ladies to attract a particular type of reader to their paper. Some papers do not carry such pictures to specifically attract a different type of reader. Big Tel will filter out content from sites they deem not attractive to their target audience, and promote content they think their target audience wants.

    What's so wrong with that? If I don't want porn sites to appear in my search results and signing up to Big Tel can achieve that then why not sign up to Big Tel?

    Can a person have a credible opinion about a topic they have never thought about? Obviously not; you have to be exposed to a subject from at least two sides of the fence before you can have a credible opinion about it. Without a credible opinion you do not have a voice in any meaningful debate; your much-vaunted freedom of speech is simply screaming in the wind. [Note: This assumes the topic is one about which an opinion can be valid. Scientific debate can only take place between parties familiar with the science, but there is no requirement for either of them to be familiar with any non-science hanging on the topic's coat tails.]

    Would you consciously give anyone the right to tell you what you think? Obviously not; you are your own person and you value your freedom of thought, don't you? Well, believe it or not, when you buy your newspaper you become a statistic in the war between opposing philosophies, a foot soldier in the battle of ideologies, and they use your purchase as proof that you agree with all of their creed. "There are ten million Sun readers and every one of them agrees that …" [insert your own example of a ridiculous thing you do not agree with, even though you have on occasion read the Sun].

    So allowing Big Tel to filter content for you takes away your freedom of thought – because there is no requirement for Big Tel to tell you what they have filtered, so you end up not even knowing that there is a fence to sit on, never mind not knowing on which side of it you want to stand.

    Allowing Big Tel to filter content for you takes away – or at least erodes – your freedom of thought – because they have now enrolled you as one of their ideological soldiers, and you agree with them on this which is why you paid up in the first place, right? Once you have given them the right to think on your behalf, they will not just use that right, but they will surely abuse it, just as Big.Com does with everything else. Since there is no requirement for them to tell you what they have filtered out they could be denying you access to sites promoting the driving of soft-top sports cars, for example. How would you know?

    And don't forget that access to a site might have nothing to do with the actual content of that site. Big Tel might deny you access to a site simply because it carries advertising for one its competitors.

    Big Tel could even deny you access to your own website, but in that case I guess you would know, wouldn't you?

    Did you notice the money? You paid Big Tel a fee so that they can give you restricted access to something to which you currently enjoy unlimited access. You paid Big Tel a fee so that they can restrict your freedom of speech, you paid Big Tel a fee so that they can erode your freedom of thought. Does it make any kind of sense for anyone to do that?

    Am I just being paranoid about this?

  7. asel34 says:

    Hmm.. That's smart, RIAA.. Ok, you win. So, instead of people trading the instructions of how to play their own rendition of a song, now people will first steal the song from you by downloading it illegally, and THEN proceed to figure it out. I wonder if they're going to start sitting outside of garages, listening to the local kids jam, and busting them for playing copywrited(d) (copywritten?) music?

    Just completely unbelieveable how they think that totally shitting on everyone and everything is the way to boost their (now) hurting sales. Napster didn't kill your profits, you did.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    asel34: I totally agree with the emotional tone and the intellectual content of your comment. What are these guys thinking?

    This episode is, for me, an invitation to revisit the extent to which copyright law (including the Bono amendment to protect Mickey Mouse) infringes on a "natural" property right of the People to make use of their cultural icons. Things are WAY out of whack.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another guitar chord site that has been shut down by the National Music Publishers Association and the Music Publishers Association of America.

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