Does Creativity Emerge from the Commons or the Market?

Here’s further evidence that music industry executives don’t have a clue about how creativity works, and that their only concern is how to squeeze every last nickel out of the “product.” As The New York Times reports (August 21; behind paywall), music publishers are determined to shut down guitar tablature websites in order to prevent guitarists from sharing music with each other.

Tab websites are sites on which amateur guitarists figure out how to play songs they hear, and then trade the “tabs,” or music notation, for them. Wanna learn how to play “Whole Lotta Love” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” on guitar? You used to be able to go to, or, and you’d find amateur notations of the music. A guitarist friend of mine says that some of the tabs are awful, but many are pretty good approximations — and satisfying enough for casual players plucking away on the front porch.

Sounds like a great way to drum up enthusiasm for songs and artists, and seed the market, right? The music publishing business doesn’t see it that way. They consider the fan notations “derivative works” under copyright law, and therefore illegal. Even though there are no laws or court cases that explicitly address the legality of tablature, music publishers have threatened legal action against several tab websites, forcing them to “voluntarily” shut down. But in the classic style of the Internet, the tab sites are popping up elsewhere. One site,, claims that its tabs are entirely legal because its site is based on Russia and complies with Russian law.

I wonder what the next step is for music publishers — shutting down the human imagination? A new international treaty to outlaw guitar tabs? In order to nourish their subversive talent, will guitarists be forced to send dog-earred copies of their tabs through the mails in unmarked envelopes, or furtively slip them under doors to fellow guitarists, in the style of Soviet samzidat?

It?s revealing that the general counsel of the National Music Publishers’ Association, Jacqueline C. Charlesworth, “would not comment on the legality of specific sites, including Ultimate-Guitar,” according to the Times, adding that “she had seen no international licensing agreements that might make free United States distribution of guitar tablature legal.” (I get it: the presumption is that any amateur creativity or sharing is illegal unless expressly authorized by law.)

Like the music industry’s campaign against private copying, the industry’s strategy focuses on intimidating people but stopping short of clear legal determinations. That’s because a clear legal finding might provoke an angry public backlash or establish a precedent that acknowledges some user rights. It’s much more effective for the music industry to simply assert broad rights and enforce them through its own bluster and intimidation, than to have an open discussion in public forums about the legitimate social freedoms of citizens and the actual dynamics of creativity. The latter scenario would put the industry on a more disadvantageous ground. It might actually have to consider empirical evidence that challenges its ideological jihad.

The irony is that Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney and countless other guitarists surely honed their skills through do-it-yourself tabs shared with peers. Yet now music publishers, in the name of such artists, want to shut down the very sharing ethic that nurtures new talent and invigorates the industry. It insists that a creative community be regarded only as a market. It will probably take years for this antediluvian mentality to be supplanted by the peer-production culture emerging on the Internet. In the meantime, we suffer through absurd bans on sharing.