Popular FTP site shut in copyright flap

By Chris Nerney

Call it the day the music died.

Or call it the day the world's largest music publisher trained its powerful legal guns on the world's most popular Internet site for guitarists.

Following the receipt of a letter from EMI threatening legal action for copyright infringement, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) on Feb. 8 shut down the On-Line Guitar Archive (OLGA), an FTP site used by musicians around the world to share guitar chords and tablatures - a detailed form of guitar notation. The instructions for as many as 15,000 songs were housed in the archive.

According to OLGA archivist Cal Woods, EMI alleged that the site was using copyrighted material without license from EMI and that if license was not acquired, the music publisher would take legal action.

EMI attorney Barton Weiss declined to comment on the details of the case because "the matter is still unresolved."

University of Nevada legal counsel David Hintzman would not return phone calls regarding the OLGA situation.

OLGA, which evolved from several guitar newsgroups, has existed for about four years. Woods said in addition to chords and tablature the site contained lessons, chord charts, software, information on building guitars, and links to other guitar-related Internet sites.

"It's a great example of what the 'Net can do," said Woods, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans. "OLGA probably is one of the most organized Internet communities."

OLGA is well known among Internet-literate guitarists, with 5,000 to 10,000 regular users and contributors, Woods estimated. It became so popular that fellow enthusiasts set up numerous mirror sites around the world.

Nonetheless, the site managed to elude EMI's radar screen until October, when EMI's British division, Thorn EMI, threatened OLGA's mirror site in the United Kingdom.

It wasn't until four months later that EMI's New York office moved on OLGA's home site at UNLV. "When we learn of copyright infringements, we pursue them," Weiss said.

While acknowledging that the copyright breach "is a matter of debate," Woods said that EMI hardly has suffered financially as a result of the site. "A lot of people have spent more money on music because of OLGA rather than less," he said.

The clash between EMI and OLGA underscores the murky, embryonic nature of copyright issues and the Internet. Only three copyright cases have been decided so far, according to Boston attorney Lee Gesmer of Lucash, Gesmer & Updegrove, which specializes in high technology and computer law.

However, despite the lack of case law involving the Internet and copyrights, Gesmer said the OLGA case seems pretty straightforward.

"If you post (copyrighted) sheet music, or even lyrics, on the Web, it's clearly copyright infringement," he said.

Woods said many of OLGA's mirror sites are still up. "We're still accepting contributions," he said.

Woods said OLGA is unable to pay for legal representation and that if UNLV and EMI are unable to work out a licensing agreement, the future of the site is in jeopardy.

Copyright 1996 Chris Nerney & NetWork World. Used with permission.