Reader C. Michael Pilato sent us this story…
I’ve known about the terms “copyright” and “trademark” for as long as I’ve been able to read cereal boxes at the breakfast table. But I didn’t became aware of copyright and the surrounding issues until I was in college. Sadly, our introduction wasn’t all handshakes and smiles.
I play the guitar. I started teaching myself how to do this in high school, when my primary taste in music was so-called Christian rock. I carried my interest in the guitar with me into college at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I developed a second love affair – with the Internet.
At some point early in my college days, someone introduced me to OLGA, the Online Guitar Archive. OLGA had the straightforward goal of providing a single location where guitarists of all shapes and sizes could download and contribute plaintext files that described how to play particular pieces of classical or popular music on the guitar. I gathered while traipsing around through newsgroups and such that OLGA was pretty popular with amateur guitarists like myself. There was only one small problem with OLGA from my perspective – it didn’t have much music from the bands I listened to. So, I decided to dedicate a portion of the web-accessible disk space allotted to me by UNCC to host a site like OLGA, but dedicated to contemporary Christian music (CCM). And with just a handful of transcriptions I’d done myself (and also submitted to OLGA for inclusion there), and some severely lacking website design skills, I began the CCM Guitar Music Archives.
I advertised the CCMGMA on the rec.music.christian newsgroup, routinely asking for contributions, and trying to cover myself legally by asking would-be contributors to “respect all laws regarding copyright, patent, The Club(tm), and other such neat-0 anti-theft devices”. Of course, if you’ve read anything at all here at QuestionCopyright.org, you should be able to spot quickly that I knew about copyright’s true purpose exactly what most of America knows about it, which is to say I knew practically nothing. But contributions started to flow in, and the site’s popularity started to grow. I recall a day when, flipping through an Internet-focused book in a Christian bookstore, I arrived at an appendix in the back listing top-tens of various categories of websites. There I discovered that my little uncc.edu-hosted website (complete with the tell-tale tilde in the URL) was considered one of the top ten music-related resources for Christians on the World Wide Web. UNCC eventually even had to ask me to move the site to my home ISP’s servers because they felt it was generating too much traffic on their network.
In February of 1996, I tried to visit OLGA’s website, but was greeted with a message about some legal issue they were having with a major publishing company. Knowing that any legal issue they were having was likely one I could wind up having, too, I temporarily brought the CCMGMA offline. I continued to watch OLGA for clues about the waters clearing, and eventually brought my site back up. I tightened up my submission policies to explicitly disallow renditions of songs for which you could purchase guitar sheet music from a music store. Again, my whole understanding of copyright was basically that it existed to protect artist’s profits. In my mind, no profiting artists meant no music to listen to, so I did not in any way want to contribute to that scenario. I had to deny a few contributions under this new policy, but my conscience was clear.
And then it happened. A representative of a Christian music publishing company contacted me via email and indicated that I needed to immediately remove all the works on my site that were associated with artists contracted to them. I don’t recall now if I tried to get a good explanation of why from the representative. I do recall the bewilderment I felt as I wrestled with the fact that it was a Christian publishing house that was forcing my hand. (I’ve learned much since then about the peculiarities of the word “Christian” when used as an adjective.) But none of this mattered. What mattered was that I was a college kid with no sizable income, and I had this vision looping in my head of my parents wringing their hands and asking of me through columns of steels bars, “Mike, what have you done?!” I took the CCM Guitar Music Archives offline, eventually handing the whole collection of nearly 300 contributions to someone else who wanted to try to keep the idea alive. And just like that, three years of making what I felt was a small but positive impact on one segment of the world were finished.
To this day, I still wonder if even a single penny of publisher profit was negatively affected by my site or OLGA or any number of similar collections of user-contributed guesswork. Never did I hear from my contributors that, thanks to my site, they no longer needed to buy CDs or cassettes. In fact, I suspect these sites existed at all because of folks listening to purchased music over and over and over again while trying to discern amidst a wash of drum fills and screaming vocals what their favorite guitarist might have been playing in a given song. Besides, doesn’t the Good Book tell us that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”?