Do Online Drum Tabs Violate Copyrights?

Roadmap Violation

By Brian K. Carvell, Esq. Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's February 2010 Issue

I confess to being a dork. I might play drums in a fierce rock band ( and do my hair up in fashionable spikes, but the dweeb indicators are there: 1) I drive a Hyundai, 2) I’m totally into ’80s metal, and 3) the other day I found myself Googling my own name. Sure enough, I found a link to a message board that was discussing an article I wrote (“Funk Heroes vs. Beat Theives”) from the DRUM! October 2007 issue.

Flattered as I was that people out there in the music community were taking note of my work, one of the other readers posted a question that I thought worthy of this month’s Legal Eagles topic: “If someone tabs out a song on a web site, is that a copyright violation?”

The short answer to the question raised is, yes, it is a violation. As discussed in prior columns, copyright protection is available to an original creation that is distinct enough to merit ownership rights to the author, provided that work is memorialized in a tangible medium. If not registered with the U.S. Patent And Trademark Office, such protection only extends to those who could reasonably be expected to be aware of the work, but if the work is registered with the USPTO, then this is “notice to the world” of the author’s ownership rights.

When we break it down to the simplest of terms, a copyright means the author owns the protected work, in whatever format. Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” is a protected piece of work, regardless of how the violator reproduces the song without express permission. It doesn’t matter if the song is rerecorded without consent, or if it is tabbed out without consent, the work is still the property of the copyright owner.

Let’s say someone does put tabs for “Communication Breakdown” up on their web site. What is the harm to the copyright owner? I can remember when I was a kid, tab books were big business. When I would go to my drum lessons at Beller’s Music in Manchester, Connecticut, there was one wall that was lined with guitar-tab books. But the Internet has basically killed the tab-book business. No one is profiting from these books anymore, so the damages that could be sued for over a violation don’t exist. At most, an injunction forcing the removal of the protected material from the web site would be the only legal remedy. The bottom line is, a copyright owner needs to look at the total picture and make an informed decision if it is a battle worth fighting.

This article is not intended as legal advice. If you have specific legal concerns, please contact an attorney.

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