OER Hero? OLGA and Open Education (pt 2)

Back in November 2011 I finally wrote up the first half of my presentation from OER11, in May. I finished the write-up with the pitch-perfect teaser

[Pursuing people who created and shared their own guitar tab to popular music] was an audacious attempt by music publishers not just to defend their rights but to own our interpretation and critical response to “their” products, which has as many implications for academics as it has for guitar students.

Needless to say, it failed.

How it failed is very interesting, has further parallels to the world of OER, and will be the topic of post two in this little series.

Damn, I done made good writing things However, what with one thing and another (moving house, office, house again, various stuff happening in public policy and open education…) I never got around to doing part 2. Until now.

OER Hero? OLGA and Open Education (pt 1)

We left our intrepid song-learning heroes in something of a quandary. The simple act of recording and sharing your learning had been deemed detrimental to the financial interests of the music industry. In 2006 the Online Guitar Archive (OLGA) had been hit by “take down” letters.

Letter to OLGALinks to a scan of the 7 page letter soon became the only material available from OLGA. The music business had won, and it seemed like an amazing learning resource was gone forever. Other claims began to appear based on the same understanding, for example:

The versions of these publishers’ musical works that you post on your website are not exempt under copyright law. In fact, U.S. copyright law specifically provides that the right to make and distribute arrangements, adaptations, abridgements, or transcriptions of copyrighted musical works, including lyrics, belongs exclusively to the copyright owner of that work. (reprinted in “Red Hat” Magazine, 2006)

However, things didn’t quite work out that way.  Whereas OLGA complied with the law and removed access to the archive, other sites were able to capture and redistribute the archive. And as the industry went after OLGA rather than source of the tabs (rec.music.makers.guitar and alt.guitar.tablature), the informal transcription and sharing of tabs continued.

Numerous sites came and went, using the OLGA archive and supplementing it with other sources – new tabs from the newsgroups, transcriptions from fan-sites, direct submissions. As access to the web widened, the potential sources increased exponentially – with new destinations springing up faster than they were taken down

In 2007, we saw a change of tack from the industry. Formerly illegal site MXtabs became the first “legal” free tab repository, having signed an agreement with the Harry Fox Agency. Income from advertising displayed alongside shared tabs, with site and publisher sharing the profits. But this proved unsustainable, the site closing after 2011… three years after a delayed launch.

Keeping abreast of the multiple tab sources available had become a full-time job, and players were looking for a means of simplifying their search. TabCrawler had launched at the turn of the century, eight years after OLGA but a long time before the legal difficulties became apparent. But the fact that it primarily searched (crawled) other sites for tabs rather became a huge advantage during the volatility of the mid-late 00s.

Though many sites claimed “fair use” and similar defences, and no case was ever brought to court, it was clear that the harassment from music publishers would continue. This, after all, was a battle on their historical turf – sheet music piracy was the first battle they fought, and with fists and boots rather than legal redress.

Sites like 911tabs entered into licensing arrangements with publishers in order to crawl and display content from multiple sites. Again advertising revenues were shared, but rather than hosting – and clearing rights for – individual tablatures, the site obtained a license to the rights of any tab that may or may not exist. When a tab was added to one of the host sites, 911tabs would automatically had the right to display ads alongside it.

This may strike you as a peculiar business model:

  • Publishers and the aggregator share income from advertising displayed alongside the free tab.
  • The transcriber is not paid for their work
  • Those who review and improve the transcription are not paid for their work
  • Sharing of this unpaid work outside of the aggregator may be illegal, but is generally not pursued as it actually aids the aggregator.

Or, it would strike you as a peculiar model if you had not been exposed to the exciting modern world of academic publishing.

The guitar tab newsgroups are long dead, just spam and the occasional doomed request. One note from a stalwart was particularly poignant:

so far this year no tabs have been posted on alt.guitar.tab -- last year there  was only one tab posted on rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature (and that was by  me)

i've been posting to Usenet since 1993, and posting tabs for almost as long  (rock, blues, folk, & classical) -- for over 10 years i've looked after one of  the major guitar tab sites, and i used to encourage people who sent me tabs to  also post them here -- but no longer...

Oniscoid, rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature, Feb 26 2010, 2:00 am

But the sheer volume of players using and sharing tabs has grown so large that it would no longer be possible for a single mailing list to work. To submit a tab you can use any of the major sites, to request a tab likewise (Ultimate Guitar is another aggregator with a license). The process, however, is now owned and monetised by the music industry.

You’d think that the involvement of the industry would result in better quality tabs – but you would be wrong. It is very common to find materials from the original OLGA archive in any search… unedited, uncorrected and still as patchily awful but brilliantly human as they were in the 90s. The eagerness to share and to learn shines through.

I’m no open fundamentalist – I’ve no problem with publishers publishing and letting the artists get on with making art. But I expect publishers to actually publish stuff, and add value by doing so. Imagine if you could find tab for any song you wanted, musically accurate , laid-out beautifully, supported with lessons and techniques: I’d *subscribe* to that, never mind stand up for the rights of the publishers to sell rights around it.

All it would require would be a little investment, a little work. Maybe a community micro-payment of bounties for requested tabs. The tiniest bit of innovation, a little thought. But as things stand, the music publishers profit from the work of thousands of keen amateurs and contribute nothing in return.

Is this the future of education resources more generally? We share our resources freely, but see publishers damage sharing and reuse by demanding payment and restrictions?


4 thoughts on “OER Hero? OLGA and Open Education (pt 2)”

  1. Brilliant analysis and a lot of history I did not know. Where do all the publishers stand on the plethora of music lyric sites?

    If they had their act together they might have developed a rich teaching resource like http://soundslice.com (unsure of their relationship to the publishers). I’d think seriously about paying for those kind of lessons

  2. Very shortly this web site will be famous among all
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    this was spam, but would appear to be very lovely spam and entirely accurate

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