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Fretting over infringement

Scott Johnson, of West Mifflin, says a lot of the musicians who visit Pittsburgh Guitars on the South Side learn to play music not by reading music but by reading tablature.

Tablature is a notation system that uses letters or symbols, instead of notes, to show how to play a given piece of music. For guitar tablature, or tab, a diagram of the strings is shown, with finger positions corresponding with the appropriate frets on the guitar.

The Internet hosts thousands of tab Web sites, and after a basic Google search, guitarists can figure out how to play almost any song that can get stuck in their heads. While some sites require registration, most guitar tabs can be found online for free.

"I think a lot of younger players would be lost without those Web sites," said Johnson, a guitar repairman at the store.

A campaign launched this year by the Music Publishers' Association of the United States, which represents sheet music companies, threatens to shut down these free tab Web sites. The MPA compares offering free tabs of songs online to giving away stolen merchandise to attract customers.

Both Guitar Tab Universe (www.guitartabs.cc) and GuitarTabs.com, two of the bigger tab sites, report that they've received legal notices in recent months from the MPA and the National Music Publishers' Association, part of an ongoing copyright war to stop unlicensed song scores and lyrics from spreading digitally.

Rob Balch, Web site administrator for Guitar Tab Universe, posted a statement on his site that questions whether there's any copyright violation in the tabs he provides: "When you are jamming with a friend, and you show him/her the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement• What about if you helped him/her remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin ... infringement?"

Some guitarists compare tablature to language translation. It's not like photocoping sheet music; it's one artist's transcription.

"It's not posted in a commercial way or to make money," said Frank Delfina, of New Jersey, who was browsing Pittsburgh Guitars last week. "It's the person who made the tab saying, 'This is the version of the tune as well as I know it.'"

Roger Cegelski, a guitar teacher in Moon Township, said tablature is the quickest way to teach a student how to play. His students learn a combination of tabs -- which he writes out himself -- and traditional music-reading.

"If the kid is going to be playing in the high school band, he needs to learn the notes, but he can learn the tabs faster," Cegelski said. And, he said, tablature is useless unless the student has heard the song first.

"What tab doesn't give you is the structure and the tone and the pacing," he said.

Cegelski doesn't recommend trying to learn from tab Web sites alone. "There are some good ones out there, but they are really not that reliable," he said.

Still, MPA president Lauren Keiser said online tabs, mistakes and all, do not qualify as the personal interpretation of the person who transcribes them.

"U.S. copyright law provides that the right to make and distribute an arrangement, adaptation, abridgment or transcription of a copyrighted work such as a song belongs to the copyright owner of that work," Keiser said in a statement.

Without the permission of the copyright owner, Keiser argues, the arranger and Web site of a tab version of a song are infringing on the copyright.

John Bechtold, who works at Pittsburgh Guitars on the South Side said he rarely uses tab Web sites because most of them are riddled with errors.

"I don't feel it's infringement, but most of those sites have a lot of mistakes," Bechtold said. "I think you can end up learning a song incorrectly if you use them too much."

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