Generic Fair Use

... where pop culture meets intellectual property law

Tag: music industry

Seeing “Red”: Taylor Swift and the Dueling Copyrights in a Song

Taylor Swift is one of the most prominent and successful musical artists of this decade. She has registered over 100 song copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.[1] Of course, Swift was a teenager when she first entered the music industry. The stories of exploitation within the industry by record companies, managers, agents and representatives are vast. It appears not even Taylor Swift was immune from a rather nasty dispute with the entity that produced her first six albums.

Over the weekend, Swift sent out a tweet to her 85 million Twitter followers.

While I am very familiar with who Taylor Swift is (though I prefer Tool), there are enough stories about her ongoing dispute with Scooter Braun, Scott Borschetta and Big Machine Records. I will let someone else explain the gossipy details involved there. Nor will I perform any deep dives into the private equity acquisition of Ms. Swift’s former record company that led us to these contractual impasses. Elizabeth Warren and AOC have already dipped their toes into that murky water.

Instead, I immediately realized this topic has copyright law implications. Did you know that most recorded songs have at least two separate copyrights associated with them? That is partially why there is such drama between Taylor Swift and Big Machine’s new owners. Ms. Swift, for one, very much does not welcome these new corporate overlords.

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Something in the Way: Online Guitar Tabs and Copyright Law

Americans buy millions of new guitars every year.[1] Many of these are “entry-level” guitars intended for those trying to learn a new instrument. Yet somewhere in the range of 90% of new guitar players quit trying within the first year. When the electric guitar first became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, there were few ways to accelerate the learning curve. By the late 1990s, along with the advent of the internet, a tool for learning guitar and how to play popular songs reached the masses: guitar tablature or “tab” for short. The concept of tablature was not new, but the ability for an individual to read and acquire tabs through the internet was groundbreaking.

Guitar tab is essentially a shorthand method for transcribing the specific notes and chords of a song in a format that mimics the finger positions on a guitar’s fretboard. Instead of having to learn to read and translate formal sheet music, tablature is simplified. Each note is represented by a number that corresponds to a particular string and location on the fretboard. The beauty of guitar tab is that most anyone who plays guitar can transcribe a song into this format and share it with others as a teaching tool.

Naturally, it did not take long for the internet to respond in kind. Sites with collections of thousands of tabs populated the web seemingly overnight. To the surprise of no one, this also caught the attention of the music publishing industry. And their lawyers. Copyright law concerns threatened to shut down online guitar tab publishing in its entirety.

My question today is simple: while guitar tablature is likely a “derivative work” restricted by copyright law – should it be? Or should there be some sort of expressed fair use exception for guitar tablature? And if not, why not?

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