Music Industry, we have a problem.

November 8, 2014

guitar_rocketYou may have noticed, that we do not post any tablatures of famous musicians/bands at the moment. The reasons are some complicated copyright issues on tablatures of well-known songs. We did everything we could to get licenses for publishing those tablatures on our website but it will take some time until our request will be processed. In this short post, I want to discuss some of the copyright issues. Furthermore I will introduce our current strategy for keeping up duochords with a subset of the already planned songs and explain your advantages from it.

The copyright law in general

There are many ambitious guitarists out there posting a lot of tablatures and cover songs on ultimate guitar or on youtube. Our initial idea behind duochords was to do the exactly the same but with guitar duos purely. We already prepared a lot of material (especially tablatures) for acoustic guitar duos for this blog. But when it was time to publish those tablatures, we did some research on the existing laws concerning the publishing of sheet music. During our researches, we found some issues we could not solve yet.

It starts very simple: Every published song has automatically the copyright of the author. This is obvious and it works the same way with other creative works (eg. arts). It simply protects the author from others, who copy the whole song and perform it pretending it was their own composition. So far, everything is still easy.

Laws concerning Cover Versions

You may know some popular songs that are cover versions. For example, Joe Cocker got famous with the song “With a little Help from my Friends” which was originally written by the beatles. There are many more examples for well-known cover songs. Covering songs is possible despite the copyrights of the author. In the US, it is very simple to cover a song. There are so-called “mechanical licenses” available from Harry Fox Agency (or other companies) that allow to cover songs after paying corresponding fees. There are even online forms where you simply fill in the name of the song and the number/ type of publications. After paying the calculated fees you are ready to publish the cover song. There are some limitations with those licenses. If you are interested, you will find some more information on mechanical licenses on the HFA website.

The law in germany distinguishes between simple copies of the original song and edited cover songs, which contain a certain degree of new elements. Depending on this decision there are different fees and sometimes it may even be impossible to cover the song ( eg. because the original author does not allow similar copies of his song). And that is already the first point we have a problem with at the moment. For every song we want to publish on duochords, it has to be checked if it is a “copy” or an “edited version” of the original song. This takes some time, because every tablature would be sent to and checked by the original author. At the moment, our “Nothing Else Matters” tablatures are checked and this takes already about four weeks now.

Laws concerning Tablatures

The second problem we are facing is that the music industries try to prevent the distribution of tablatures from copyrighted songs. And this fact is a bit more complicated from our point of view.

Of course the original work of a songs author should be protected from illegal distribution. Some bands sell songbooks with their tablatures and lyrics for example. It would not be fair to scan their book and publish it online. So far it is correct and reasonable to prevent this form of distribution.

But now, think the other way around: You are driving with your car and you are listening to the radio (By the way, in germany we already have to pay more than 200 US$ per year for listening to the radio. But this is another strange law I don’t want to discuss here). During your way home, you may listen to several songs but among them is this one particular. It has a very memorable theme but you do not know the band or song name. In the evening of that day, you grab your guitar as everyday and start strumming some chords. Ah, yeah… you remember this sound… this is similar to the song you heard on the radio today. You decide to write the tablature down. Later, you are so happy about this new tablature, that you share it on your favourite guitar forum.

Was anything wrong so far? – We don’t think so. But actually you have already broken the law. It is forbidden to write down and share/distribute tablatures from existing songs even in modified versions. To do that, you first have to get the permission of the original author or you have to sign an appropriate contract with the music industries. We could not get any information about those contracts, but they seem to be very expensive, because we found only a handful of websites that have such contracts. You can find some information on that topic in this wikipedia article.

Of course, the example above is a bit exaggerated story, but from our point of view the tablatures we would publish on duochords are far away from the original songs. There are no information about rhythm in our tablatures and there are no lyrics at all. It would never compete with an original song book but it would be a good starting point for beginners. This would even be a kind of advertising for the original work of the band. For example, I did not like to listen to Metal music at all and without finding┬á the tablatures of “Nothing Else Matters” on the web, I would have never come in touch with the band “Metallica”. But now, I would even visit one of their concerts to see them live on stage. It is a win-win situation. Fabian and I learned to play the guitar with this song as one of our first tablature ever and Metallica got two more fans out of it.

Here we got the Problem

Finally, there are two reasons why we can not publish any famous songs on duochords at the moment. First it would take a lot of effort and time. At least it would take a few weeks for every song to get the information if it is a “copy” or an “edited version”. Additionally we would have to pay a lot of fees or to sign a (maybe) much more expensive contract with the music industries. This is not possible for us, because we want to offer our tablatures for free. That is the original idea behind duochords: Share free tablatures for two guitars because it is fun to play!

Our solutions

Until we get responses from the music industries about the expected fees for our project, we continue with only two sorts of tablatures:

  • tablatures of own pieces
  • tablatures of music from the public domain

During our sessions and free time, we like to compose our own songs. Those will be extended to duos and published on duochords for free. Maybe we will add some lyrics to some of them. If you have own song lyrics, you can share them with us and ask us to write an according guitar duo for it.

Additionally, we want to focus on public domain music. Pieces from the public domain are free from copyrights and can be used or recomposed without problems. There are many well-known songs (new cover pieces as well) that are public domain. We will write down some of them as tablatures for two guitars and publish them on duochords too. For example, we are planning to work on some famous christmas songs during our next session.

All the tablatures we post on our website are therefore available for free and can be used for any (non-commercial) purposes. They are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. You can play them on your own gigs or use them in your guitar lessons. Wherever you use them, please refer to our website (http://duochords.com) or mention our project as reward. For commercial use of our tabs, please contact us and ask for permission.

I hope this article helps to get a short overview about the copyright laws in music industry and explains our future steps. We hope you understand the given limitations and hope you remain faithful and follow our future work on this project.

About the author (Dorian Glagla)

I am studying Systems Engineering at the university of Essen-Germany. I've been playing guitar for about 16 years. I visited a classical music school in D├╝sseldorf-Germany the first eleven years. Since 2009 I focussed on practicing modern music by mylself but i still like to play classical pieces too (Tarrega, Albeniz et al).. See all posts by

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