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Copyright woes leave guitarists out of key

Regardless of the standard of your axe-wielding, to guitar players, Olga the Online Guitar Archive, was the queen of rock. Now, sadly, Olga is kaput.

Olga started in 1992 as a Usenet group, where mostly amateur guitar players would post their own by-ear transcriptions of songs. Use of the archives was free, and it was an important starting point for every wannabe Hendrix our there, from the nearly tone deaf (such as your author) to the more accomplished rocker.

But Olga's administrators voluntarily shut the site down last July after a cease-and-desist letter from sheet-music publishing trade groups, alleging copyright violations.

A court battle would mean legal costs of at least $250,000, and it's possible high damages could be awarded if Olga lost, said Cathal Woods, a philosophy professor at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia, who became Olga's caretaker in 1994.

So rather than fight, Olga folded. Other sites, such as Mxtabs, have also closed shop, although there's no specific court precedent dealing with copyright issues around guitar tablature.

Jacqueline Charlesworth, senior vice president and general counsel of the NMPA (National Music Publishers' Association), said the sites take away revenue from companies that have paid copyright owners for the right to print sheet music.

She said the NMPA, which represents 800 US publishers, has targeted sophisticated operations such as Olga that generate ad revenue by offering free music.

"We're not interested in pursuing people who are writing chords on a napkin," Charlesworth said.

Olga was hatched because Usenet kept postings for only three days. Olga soon got a domain on the browser-based internet and grew to some 34,000 "tabs" of varying quality.

Guitar players contributed transcriptions using tablature, or "tab," a hack notation method using lines to represent strings on a guitar and numbers to represent finger positions on the fret board. At its peak, Olga drew about 1 million visitors a month in 1998 and 1999, Woods said.

The NMPA and the MPA (Music Publishers' Association) assert US copyright law forbids the distribution of transcriptions or even arrangements that are somewhat similar to the copyright work, making even inaccurate tabs illegal.

It wasn't OLlga's first legal encounter. In 1996, EMI Music Publishing complained when OLGA was hosted on servers at the University of Las Vegas.

The university gave Olga the boot. Faced with moving to a commercial hosting service, Olga started taking advertising on its site and sold T-shirts to cover costs, Woods said.

"We've never treated it as an income-generating stream," Woods said. "No one ever makes any money. No one even gets paid."

On the advice of attorneys after the EMI dispute, lyrics were removed from the tabs. The dispute simmered until last year, when Olga and other tab sites received the legal notices.

However, Olga's attorney, Anthony DeGidio, has expressed an interest in challenging the groups, although the legal strategy he would use is unknown, Woods said. DeGidio, who practices law in Ohio, could not be reached for comment.

But parts of Olga live on, ironically in the electronic bowels of a caretaker with much deeper pockets.

In 2001, Google bought Deja.com's Usenet archives, which still contain tabs posted years ago to newsgroups such as alt.guitar.tab and rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature.

Google, however, has publicly said it would remove copyright material on request. But Olga been widely purloined, Woods said, and many websites have replicated the archives.

Nonetheless, the actions of the music-publishing trade groups have struck the wrong chord.

"People are trying to learn how to play an instrument, and they need these kinds of things to help," wrote Amanda Aguiar, a guitar and bass player in Rhode Island who started an online petition to protest the NMPA and MPA's actions.

"I listen to a lot of underground bands and bands that don't make sheet music books," she wrote. The MPA counters that the wide availability of free tablature is to blame, and publishers have no incentive to create a book.

Woods charges the publishers have only recently embraced the internet, and while some new sites have innovative software, it's not enough to satisfy users.

"They've been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century," Woods said.

So now it's time for a swan song for bummed guitar players: Specifically, "Sad Song" by Oasis from their album, "Definitely Maybe."

It starts on a "C" then goes to a "B," but for the rest, you'll have to pluck it out for yourself since I could get sued if I tell you any more. And since I have no money, I'd be forced to sell my guitar.

To the NMPA and MPA: The chords are wrong anyway.

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