sparky

by Will Kreth

There's less strumming on the Net these days, and guitarists the world over are bumming out because of it. That's because OLGA, the On-Line Guitar Archive is dead, shot down by the threat of a copyright violation lawsuit from music conglomerate EMI Publishing on February 8th. OLGA is an ftp site of digital "sheet music"—guitar chords and tablatures of songs by hundreds of popular and obscure bands and solo artists. It was started at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1992 by former UNLV student James Bender and later curated by Cal Woods, a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. Woods, originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, ran the site as a labor of love. Traffic on the site became so heavy that mirror sites were set up all over the world to meet the demand. Almost all of those sites have now closed, too. After reviewing their legal options, on April 25 UNLV stopped hosting OLGA permanently. To date, no other sites have stepped forward to host it.

The archive was useful because published tablature is hard to find. Most music stores carry only the sheet music of the latest Top 40 releases or old war-horses like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. OLGA depended upon fans who took the time to laboriously transcribe songs by ear, note-for-note and chord-for-chord. "We created a cottage industry of transcribers," says Woods. "Many performers either don't know how to write down their own music, or refuse to take the time to do it, seeing no money in it." The issue is further complicated when fans realize that the published versions of songs are often transcribed incorrectly, particularly in the case of artists who use unusual tunings, such as Joni Mitchell. The correct version of her nonstandard tunings resided on OLGA, created by one very dedicated fan.

Since it wasn't for profit, why did EMI consider what OLGA was doing "theft?" Most money in the music industry is made on the mechanical reproduction rights of the actual music or the performances of it, not the published copies of it. "It's a shame that EMI can't see OLGA as an opportunity to sell more music," says Jerry Michalski, co-editor of "Release 1.0," Esther Dyson's computer industry newsletter, which often writes eloquently on the need to reconfigure ideas of intellectual property and copyright. "Part of the problem is that people really want to play these tunes, and the cost of compliance [never playing the chords because the music doesn't exist in print] is far greater than the time it takes to get around it. What needs to happen is that these companies need to make compliance and payment a trivially easy thing to do, via microtransactions or in some other way."

Until that happens, fans of OLGA will have to find other ways to get the chords they need.   </end>

WILL KRETH is a frustrated rock critic who settled for becoming a musician instead.
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