Guitar Tabs Illegal?

Are guitar tabs illegal? The Music Publishers’ Association thinks so:

MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed. He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the Internet but were “completely illegal”.

(Source: BBC News)

OK here’s the thing: I could argue that fan-contributed tabs are legal under US copyright law, but it would be moot. The only two facts that matter are:

  • Laws exist to serve the common good
  • The world thinks that sharing Tabs is OK

End of discussion. Seriously. Don’t empty your lobbyist piggy-bank for this one, Keiser. Its a lost cause. There’s a reason why your quote has spread like Internet wildfire: it betrays a point of view so jaw-droppingly out-of-sync with the rest of us, it’s laughable.


41 Responses to “Guitar Tabs Illegal?”

  1. 1 andrew January 15, 2006 at 9:19 pm

    if you disagree with this decision by the mpa, sign this petition.

  2. 2 Mark January 15, 2006 at 10:16 pm


    I think this online petition is a great concept, but I’m afraid it won’t be taken seriously.

    The main problem is that it’s not written very well. For an example, look no further than the *title* of the document, “Petition To End Restriction on MPA Banning of Guitar Tabs and Song Lyrics Online.” If we “End Restriction” on “Banning” that means we will get more banning.


  3. 3 Ssbb February 14, 2006 at 9:48 am

    I’ve read that tabs are now illegal to be placed online. That’s why there is no more…

  4. 4 Mark February 14, 2006 at 10:37 pm


    Just so were clear, I’m not aware of any new legislation regarding guitar tabs. Nobody passed any new laws.

    All that has happened is that some “rights holders” (not to be confused with musicians) have decided that fan-created tabs violate their copyright. This is absurd, of course.

    Unfortunately, our legal system is one in which deep pockets usually win — sometimes thru sheer intimidation. When a big corporation says “cease and desist”, the little guy frequently capitulates.


  5. 5 bkippers June 26, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    why are they illegal, what laws do they break?

  6. 6 Mark June 26, 2006 at 11:14 pm


    The recording industry thinks that a fan’s receipe for recreating a song (a tab) is a copyright violation. Sometimes they drink a few too many lattes and spout bullshit like the quote in the BBC article.

    I don’t think they are illegal, and I’m sure I could find plenty of lawyers who would take my money to argue that position.

    The sad thing is that it doesn’t matter. In this day and age, merely the threat of litigation is enough to shut down a website. Some people just can’t afford to prove they are right.

  7. 7 bkippers June 29, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    that’s brutal there should be no reason for them to be illigal all the do is help people learn the songs they want.

  8. 8 God July 19, 2006 at 12:04 am

    God says, the mpa is rediculous over this, Im sorry tab was for learning only not for the stealing of business i never had interest in buying a book of music in the first place nor will I ever if I have to I will resort to theifery with piracy on pirate site. Hey guess what most people cant tab buckethead. Go fuck yourself tabs is about the freedom to learn, and to share you’re knowledge.

  9. 9 Mug July 31, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    so check it, if the companys think were breaking the law why is it that we are so adiment about fighting them when were so sure were right. I have learned everything i know about guitar by reading and interperting tabs and i wont give that up, music is the biggest thing in my life and most of my mechanical musical knowledge is due to tabs. im not giving them up. The thing about the power that these guys have is that it’s only because the consumer is so supportive. no support, no power, no power, no problem. pretending this never happened would be the strongest message we could send

  10. 10 Tom August 11, 2006 at 9:55 am

    Look musicians write the songs not these assholes trying to shut it down….These musicians should be honored that their fans love/like them enough to want to learn there songs……tabs are easier than books filled with notes that most people don’t know anyway, and if they wanted to learn then they have to pay for lessons somewhere. So I’d like to see all you rich fucks pick up a guitar and try learning a song by ear, then you will understand what the fuck all of us REAL MUSICIANS are saying……

  11. 11 Daniel S. August 11, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    Today I tried to sign on to my favorite tab site to continue my finger tapping lesson posted willingly by another user. I was shocked at the 1st ammendment violation that it spoke of. How dare they threaten a site that post tab variations. I can tell you as an experienced musician I have met hundreds of people that can listen to almost any song on a radio and then play and transcribe it. Why do some people believe they should tax our human experience. We’ve already bought the fucking $17 album from our mall that carries a poor selection. Paid the fucking $20 parking just because it was the millenium (No SHIT!), and coughed up $60 to see a band play 2 hours. National Music Publishers Association and the Music Publishers Association of America get fucked you will be fought every step you can never shut downinformation trading. Enjoy your endless futility dumb shit.

  12. 12 Anna August 22, 2006 at 6:27 am

    The first thing I thought when I saw the article in the NYT was, whatever happened to freedom of speech? Are they saying that if you figure out the guitar tabs or lyrics to a piece of music, it would be a copyright infringement to tell a friend or, for that matter, a community on the Internet? I can understand what they have against sharing files, but guitar tabs and song lyrics goes one step too far.
    I suppose the biggest problem they have is distinguishing between people who copy the tabs/lyrics from a book and those who figure it out themselves. The first is a copyright infringement, and the other is not. The easiest way (and the one they’re using) is to claim both are copyright infringements and ban them. But…as simple as that is, it’s unconstitutional.
    I do hope someone has the money to take them to court.

  13. 13 Patrick August 31, 2006 at 9:36 am

    Wow. A few things about this “making tabs illegal” bullshit. First off, whoever decided this is a complete and utter douchebag. People won’t be happy unless they’re making a fucking buck off of something. I just wonder whats next, charging us to breathe? Hey theres a concept, charge 25 cents a breath. Fucking assholes. Secondly, COME DOWN IN YOUR FUCKING PRICES AND MAYBE WE WOULD BUY THE SHIT!!! Did that ever cross your mind you fucking greedy bitch. Thats why MP3’s became so popular. The day you come down in your prices is the day I’ll buy your books. In the meantime, you can find me searching for FREE TABS you fucking piece of shit.

  14. 14 gramam October 28, 2006 at 7:11 am

    Music Publishers’ Association = shit. enough said

  15. 15 pissed of guitarist December 9, 2006 at 6:12 pm

    This is fucking retarded i sware to god this could be the most dumb bull shit that i can thing of people read tabs to play songs to have fun and for learning music why is illegal?i went to a tab site /
    that tought me the basics of playing and i have became a good guitarist learning from tabs for my starting years on guitar now we can no longer read tabs inless we buy thos like way over priced tab books i have nothing els to say about this other then it is bull shit… thank you for reading my complants have a nice day

  16. 17 titties December 21, 2006 at 3:31 pm


    besides everything else, if you buy tabs, you cant even get them on CD… It’s just a pain in the ass to try and prop the book up so you can see it, right?

    fuck em, they can’t stop filesharing…


  17. 18 titties December 22, 2006 at 6:28 am

    Do you guys think lyrics will dissapear off the internet too? It’s kind of the same thing, no?

  18. 19 matt January 19, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    I heard they’ve been after home recording equip. too. They’re scared bands will do a cover, record it and sell it. So if i were to learn a song by ear am i already breaking the law? I could learn a song by ear, share the song with my friend through tabs (much more simple and quick process then sheet music)and jam on it for learning and fun; we’re breaking the law. There is nothing i can say that would have a profound effect on this. its like arguing with an idiot. The fact that these guys are going to win is beyond me. my confidence on this society is about shot. I wonder how much power musicians actually have over thier own artwork. anyway its like trying to keep water in cheese cloth. There will always be a way. If they want to stop the very very few from REALLY breaking the law on this they’ll have to stop music completely. Which is impossible.

  19. 20 Denis February 6, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Matt has a good point about learning a song by ear…if I play guitar by ear and I learn a song by ear then I perform that song for fun(key word for fun)in front of a live audience..ofcourse people knowing that it’s not my song…that’s illegal..same thing with tabs and lyrics…well if these “rights holders” are going to use that kind of stupid logik why not sue the producers of such shows as “American Idol”…they use about the same process as we do to learn a song(that they didn’t write)….except for they make money of a people getting on stage and covering other Artist’s songs…and not to mention the merchendise they produce out of it, CD’s, Shirts, posters etc…they are doing far more harm to the “Music Industry” than some kid in his garage reading tabs of the net, trying to learn how to play guitar for fun and most god dam likely won’t get a record deal ever in his life…so WHATTA FUCK???

  20. 21 Lizzy February 10, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    I think this is taking it a bit far. Okay fine not paying for the CD or the song on the internet is illegal i can see that. They’re losing money. It’s silly to stop other people playing it on a non-professional level i.e. mucking about with a few chords at home. Okay so they ban it on the net. What’s to stop me buying a book with the chords and stuff and photocopying it 1000 times and sending it all over the world? Loads of valid points have been made like if you work out the chords yourself and play them is that illegal? What’s the difference between downloading tabs and lyrics? This ban or restriction or whatever crap this is should not be taken seriously its rediculous.

  21. 22 Seb March 1, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    I’m proud of the fact that most people on here had valid arguments instead of flaming the puppet that was ordered to give us another idiotic statement. I think the whole comparison with how lyrics are treated online is really interesting. I would see lyrics distribution as being even worse since they are copyrighted printed material that comes with the disc(most cds that is). I get the whole idea of wanting to make money on a product(tabs). A lot of people will buy the official ‘The Beatles’ book to get the official tabs and I could see sharing these exact same tabs as being illegal somewhat(but then again, the whole issue with lyrics would just be the same thing since you end up with the exact reproduction of the booklet content) but to make illegal even home-made(by ear) tabs is just ludicrous. Of course, every single site out there will go down in front of the WMD that the MPA is.

    My 2cents, getting the tabs to learn my favorite songs(which will eventually lead me one day to learn most by ear) is just a way for me to enjoy music a step further and will lead me to buy more albums. MPA, just cut the crap and retire from the mess before it gets worse, I don’t see how an association will gain people by being douchebags over issues like that.

    I, for one, think they should even facilitate the job for us and provide official tabs for free on the net, I dont think they’re losing much money because of those non-sales of music sheets.

    Well, everyone, just grab everything you can right now before they close the doors on tabs and lyrics….and midi files, fan made music videos, fan made drawings of bands or worse, beat the pulp out of those musicians that take inspiration out of other bands. I could see that happening, ‘band The Flaming Lips sued over David Bowie influenced work, overally pathetic that they’d go so low.

    ‘Out to make money’ should be their slogan.

  22. 23 Rob March 17, 2007 at 11:39 am

    Yup, its all bullshit in the end. Its about the $$ no matter what you think. They expect you to go out and pay $20 to purchase a copy of the “official” tabs because of the copyrights. Good Ole Crapitalism. Money makes the world go round, it doesn’t matter if someone has a better idea, all that matters is that the people with most of the money keep most of the money. Tell you what, invent a new energy source better then oil and watch as they shoot it down.

  23. 24 john March 22, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    guitar tabs illegal??? it makes my mind go “WHAAAAAAAAAAT?!?!” its stupid… sure they can sell tab books but fan made tabs should be kept legal…

  24. 25 Madguitarist April 14, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Simply unbelievable. I looked at a tab book recently that I wanted to purchase. I looked it over pretty well before turning it over to see how much it cost. My jaw hit the floor when I saw that they were charging $39.95. I’m sorry but professional lessons are only $20 a week. I can purchase the CD with 9 to 15 songs on it for around $12.95 to $16.95 performed by the original artist.

    Furthermore, the few tab books that they do offer are transcribed by some studio musician and not the artist, performer or songwriter.

    Here is something to consider: Radio stations get paid by the record labels to play songs on the radio not the other way around. This promotion of the music is what causes record sales to happen.

    Cover bands and hobbyists alike serve the purposes of the record labels by promoting the music and we don’t charge them a dime for it. We should all band together and sue the record labels for all of our unpaid efforts.

  25. 26 The All mighty Dollar April 20, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    It’s not about rights, freedom of speech and expression or art. It’s the false idol of the all mighty dollar that is leading to our demise as a free human soul. We are all guilty of sitting back and letting our freedoms go.. slowly, one freedom at a time, until we no longer have rights to do anything unless you have the money to do it. Who have I hurt by reading Tabs or song lyrics? Most talented musicians can learn without them in the first place. What next? The limitation of learning? You may only learn what you pay for?

    We are all becoming controled to the point of no return

  26. 27 Derek April 27, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    It should also be noted that the people who make the tablature books are generally NOT the people who wrote the lyrics nor the music, and so it is virtually impossible for them to be 100% accurate either.

    Those guys are almost always listed as transcribers, which is exactly what we do when we tab something — Steve Vai got his big break by transcribing Frank Zappa’s music, and I don’t think Zappa ever slapped him with a lawsuit over it.

    However, knowing what I do about copyright law, and though I hate to admit it, the publishing of any interpretation of copyrighted material meant to be a facsimile thereof, close or not, is indeed a violation.

    Also included in this lovely nugget is the fact that playing copyrighted music (MP3s, CDs, live, etc.) for a public event without proper licensing through ASCAP or some other group is also illegal.

    To quote the usual shtick, “Unauthorized copying, arranging, adapting, recording, or public performance is an infringement of copyright.” Yes, this means that even public performance of someone else’s music can be construed as infringement. The exchange of money is of no consequence.

    I doubt that the actual songwriters suffer much by the whole free tab thing, but the companies who base their entire livelihood on producing and selling ‘official’ tabs definitely are hurt by this, the same way people who publish CDs and such are being hurt severely by the new wave of such things as iTunes.

    American Idol was mentioned above. The difference is that the network has permission from the people who own the rights to the songs used on the. This is exactly the same way people who work for places like Hal-Leonard are able to transcribe songs to put in commercially available tab books.

    I have, to this end, obtained several written statements from rightsholders of some songs stating that our band is free to cover the songs so long as we let the audience know whose version of the original we most closely relate to. Some of them don’t even require that.

    So, they are not all cold and heartless, (although Keiser really seems to be so) they just want things done legally. I’ve had them also completely refuse to give permission to use a song. The important thing is that they have every right to do so.

    A song is considered intellectual property. A notation or score of a song is an example of print containing someone’s intellectual property, either written by the creator or interpreted, adpated, arranged, transcribed, et al, by another person who is not the creator. Consider this: The BigMac is the intellectual property of McDonald’s Corp. (it is also a trade secret and all that rot, but we’ll keep it simple). Now, pretend I invented it. If I then made one in front of you and let you eat it, you have just enjoyed the limited priveleges assigned to you by the creator of the property, i.e. listening to the recording of a song. Now, you can enjoy my original property at your leisure, so long as you meet the requirements of such enjoyment, which in the case of the sandwich is money to purchase one, a mouth to chew it in, and so forth, and in the case of a recording of a song is owning a legal CD containing that song, owning an MP3, and so on.

    Now, if you, after carefully studying my Big Mac (i.e. carefully study a recording of a song) create your own version of it and proceed to gain ANY BENEFIT AT ALL from it, personal or otherwise, you owe that gain to the study of my property, which could not happen without my invention of the property. Ergo, you have just gained benefit from my hard work, even though yours was added to it.

    There are much better ways to make a hamburger than to copy someone else’s. When you copy, you get the result without ever knowing why you like that result so much. It’s not the destination, but the journey that is the important part.

    When you sit down and learn the fundamentals (scales, modes, structures, chords, arpeggios, progressions, rhythms, hand position, etc.) you possess the tools necessary to create your own distinct property. When you sit down and learn a lot of songs by other people, you learn a lot of songs by other people.

    I have a friend who can play each guitar part of Freebird note for note. It’s much more impressive to hear him improvise his own material.

    Don’t get me wrong, every guitarist I’ve ever heard of has talked about learning songs by other people. But they will all admit that only after learning their instrument were they able to make any real use of anyone else’s songs.

    When it boils down to it, a great hamburger is only great because of the many little details that went into its preparation. The same is true of a great guitarist.

    Even so, I still think that they are going way too far threatening jail time. 🙂

  27. 28 Mike May 27, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    here we are 2 years later and those dinosaurs are still whining about it…

  28. 29 Sean June 5, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    Wow…. The MPA has gone a bit too far. If I go out and play ”Wanted Dead or Alive” for my friends, would that make me a criminal? I dont think they have outlawed that yet, but I think its coming soon. After all, if LEARNING the song is illegal, why shouldnt PLAYING the song be illegal? I used to use tabs as a way of pushing myself to the next level. If it werent for tabs, I would most likely still be playing one-stringed songs. They should really leave whether or not the tabs to a song should be illegal up to the… Y’know, people who CREATED those songs.

  29. 30 Necromancer June 20, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Perhaps someone in the higher power son liked metal, downloaded the tab and played it really loud??? Or it because there doing what they always do, there business-men people, they always think with there wallets, and if you should so much as look at there work with a snear they will think your gonna steal it, Its stupid tho, if it was’nt for tabs, i would have never picked up my guitar, and neather would very many other people i think, and i know i love a song so much more when i can play it…..

    But people will be people, dont let it get to you, it will all be over soon XD up yours corprate dogs \m/ metal forever…..

  30. 31 Boyt June 30, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Is there no such meaning to the word “Free” anymore? Selling guitar tabs is one thing. But offering any services for free shouldn’t be considered illegal. As stated previously, a persons own interpritation of how a song was played can’t possibly fall under copyrights. What exactly is it they have copied? The same goes with Lyrics. If an artist decided to compose a song of the alphabet, would that make it illegal for any other website to have the same letters in that order? would that infringe your copyrights? The Music Industry is one of the biggest industries in the world. Your specialty should be manipulating airwaves not sheets of paper. Get up, and tell us that you can’t afford to lose out on money from books because someone has more sense to create their own version of your artists work – at no cost to themself (or you for that matter) – and post it online. People won’t always buy into your market. There’s only so much you can piss people off before they stop listening.

    The closer money gets to becoming obsolete the higher you raise your prices. Go figure, you’re doing something wrong.

  31. 32 John McMinn July 10, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Hello Metal dogs
    i have some tabs backed up on CD from times i ve had to reboot windows . I d be interested in trading my tabs with others on a personal basis , which , means trading no money involved ,and scince they arn’t “Published” by appearing on a website .Trading doesn’t violate publishing laws.
    I have a few songs by the following
    Deep Purple
    Iron Maiden
    Paul Gillbert
    T.Mac Alpine
    Frank Gambale
    Led Zeppelin
    A few more . i’m looking for Metallica And Justice Era power tabs
    Please respond and i’ll put my files on CD for trade .
    John M

  32. 33 John McMinn July 10, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    The whole thing of it is “Desk top Publishing “really
    if you look at the fine print of any of the blog website forumns you guys are a part of, you’ll find the site OWNS what ever you submit . So if you write a guitar lesson and want to regulate how that lesson is being used by a website , it probably wont happen . You can put up your own website and put up your lesson . Buying web space is like dealing with the post office it is an offical TIME STAMP . just like people say , you can Copywrite a song by sending it through the mail . Puting something on the internet is a very loose form of publishing . You can controll how your information is viewed by the public .
    The publishing companies like Hal Lenard are probably upset that none of the guys who transcribe for the Guitar magazies are needed any more . Power Tab is a Guitar mags worst nightmare . And Hal Lenord as well .
    The thing that sucks about the guitar mags is you have to read thier stupid liner notes of how they think the artist was influenced , and why rock sucks and jazz is great , and they just transcribe rock songs for the money.
    Mabey they can capitalize on it by putting power tab cds in the mags.I love the stuff and would pay for it .
    One of the things about GTR MAgs ,also , is they won’t transcribe everything by shrapnel , and alot of guys already have .
    Mabey if the Mags put out thier own editing software and get the ball rolling ,Power Tabbers can work for the mags and come out of the underground
    Parden me for being extra optomistic tonight , but it could happen
    Play Loud ,Peace . JM `

  33. 34 John McMinn July 17, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    I guss there arn’t anymore sites that post Power Tab i wish some one would shoot me an email about this Mikes guitar site UK was a favorite of mine , it had everything . Now the site is Powertab free . You would think there would be a russian site of powertab scince they bootleg all our movies and audio cd s and could care less about our copywrite laws .Hell,it’s easier to get a bootleg of a movie that’s in the theater this week, than to get powertab of Metallica .

  34. 35 bceagle January 2, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I sell guitar tab as an affiliate of, an authorized distributor of digial guitar tab on the internet. I get most of my visitors to my guitar tab sites through the search engines. My biggest competitors are other guitar tab sites, who are not authorized to distribute guitar tab under copyright.

    The copyright laws for guitar tab not only protects the original artist of the tab, but also all those involved with distributing guitar tab legally, like myself. How would you like it, if someone was giving away something, that you sell legally?

  35. 36 Mark January 2, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    bceagle —

    Thanks for the comment. I appreciate getting the other side of the argument.

    One factor that complicates this whole mess is that many of the TABs online are actually created by the fans

  36. 37 Bass Tab Archive February 4, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Has anyone here cloned the Bass Tab Archive before it was shut down? I’d love to see the whole site on BitTorrent 🙂

    Working on cloning BassMasta right now…

  37. 38 Joe February 4, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Funny you look at a bunch of so called illegal tab sites and they are affiliates of Musicnotes or Sheetmusicplus or the Google ads are for official tab sites.

  38. 39 Mario October 14, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Tabs have helped me learn the some of my favorite songs, although most tabs I’ve seen are usually wrong though. I did get an e-mail once stating that the tab I posted was correct (as it was from the book itself) and to be changed.

  39. 40 chicago web design November 9, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    I remember when the guitar tab sites went down a few years ago, but after a while they all came back. Did the MPA drop their case or what?

  40. 41 Darren January 28, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Alright everyone here is my views on this entire thing. I think that if a person wants to learn a song via tabs go for it! With the way things are going in the music industry it’s damn near illegal to learn a song that a professional artist has created to help yourself advance musically. And that’s no shit. Another thing I thinks bullshit is that I’m in a band, we mainly cover music, yeah we make a little bit of money off of the deal, so what.. I’m playing their songs making 100 a night while they’re making a 100,000 a night.. Like they need the fucking money! What they forget is back in the day they did the same things all of us are doing, they just didn’t have the internet. I’m not going to pay to learn a song (I can learn by ear.. Takes some work, but its worth it) but I know some people who are tone deaf but they can play because of tabs! So you’re going to take music away from people who thoroughly enjoy it? Fuck that shit.. The music industry nowadays is filled with people who just want to make money, and that’s all there is to it.. I think they should stop giving a shit. It’s not like we’ll ever make a huge profit off of playing their songs at a show. And tabs are free so whats the big fuckin deal anyway?

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