It is nearly midnight on open-mike night at Leadbetter's in Fells Point when Tom Swiss plugs in his Ovation guitar. Leaning on know-how gleaned from the World Wide Web, he strums a C chord, then an F and performs a rock classic.
"Hey, babe," he sings in his best Lou Reed imitation, "take a walk on the wild side."
Swiss, a 28-year-old software developer and amateur musician, learned most of his repertoire by downloading transcriptions from Internet bulletin boards and Web sites. To him, it's just an online variation of the time-honored tradition by which musicians teach one another songs.
The music industry thinks otherwise. A popular Web site known known as the On-Line Guitar Archive (OLGA) has closed in the face of legal threats from the agency that licenses much of the music in the United States. But the dispute underscores the increasing friction between enforcers of copyright law and those who revel in the Web's freewheeling exchange of information.
The OLGA case is "right in the heart of what is probably the most significant battleground on the Web," said Robert L. Wolfe, a New York attorney who specializes in copyright law as it applies to the Internet. "The user seeks information and does not expect to pay for it. Yet the creators of artistic works seek compensation for their works."
With such clashes, litigation is virtually inevitable, Wolfe said. Already, the music industry is trying to crack down on computer users who download digital recordings from compact discs.
OLGA (www.olga.net) is an archive of 30,000 files with song lyrics, chord progressions and guitar tablature for rock, country and jazz music. Tablature, or tab, is a form of sheet music that shows guitarists where on the fret board to place their fingers.
Tabulature files vary widely in quality, from simple (and sometimes inaccurate) outlines of chord progressions to note-by-note transcriptions of fast and flashy guitar solos.
OLGA was launched in 1992, growing out of the newsgroups alt.guitar.tab and rec.music.makers.guitar.tablature, where guitarists traded tabs they'd worked out by ear. OLGA cataloged the files and provided a search engine. By June, the site was recording 50,000 visits a day. That's when the Harry Fox Agency, a subsidiary of the National Music Publishers Association, accused OLGA operators of illegally publishing copyrighted material and threatened legal action.
The Web site's operators shuttered their archive rather than be drawn into an immediate court battle. OLGA now makes available only songs in the public domain.
Since the closing, OLGA has broached a plan to sell advertising space on its site and then pay a licensing fee to the Harry Fox Agency. But the agency has not responded to OLGA's overture, said OLGA spokesman John Nielands, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Pittsburgh and guitarist for the Raving Jehovahs, a ska-funk band.
Even so, OLGA's operators insist that what they do falls under copyright law's "fair use" exception, which allows material to be used for educational purposes. They say they've never profited from songwriters' material.
"If we were violating copyright law we would be selling these tablatures for a profit," said Nielands. "However, OLGA has at every instance given these tablatures away for free. That's the key and crucial difference. OLGA is there to provide a free service, essentially like a library."
Margaret Drum, a spokeswoman at the Harry Fox Agency, declined repeated requests to comment except to say, "They were voluntarily asked to close and they did."
OLGA's closing brought angry feedback from guitarists, who say it was never a threat to the music industry and offered many songs that weren't available in music books. They also argue that the site promotes the performance of songs - leading to royalties for songwriters.
Some 40,000 names have been collected on two petitions protesting the Harry Fox Agency's actions. In signing one of them, Swiss, the open mike night guitarist, wrote that "Music is not a crime."
"Music is all about sharing. Performers share with the audience and performers share with each other. That's the folk tradition," he said. "We now have a new technology of information that renders the old laws obsolete. We need laws that recognize that the sharing of information is what makes us human."
As Swiss spoke, Frank Florence was taking his turn at the mike. Florence played the Barenaked Ladies song, "Brian Wilson," one he'd learned from the Web. But Florence, a professional drummer and bass player for area bands, said he's not sure whether such information should be available for free.
"I know how I'd feel if my songs were out there. I'd want it to be posted, but I'd want to see royalties too," he said.
Those who sell sheet music - at prices ranging from $3.95 for an Eric Clapton song in standard musical notation to $69.95 for the complete arrangements of all Beatles recordings - say the issue is clear-cut.
"If you're pulling it off the Internet and printing it out, you should have to pay for it, plain and simple," said John Bell, a musician who sells guitars at Gordon Miller Music in Towson.
Barry Caudill, who sells keyboards at the store, added: "Even if it is an information-driven society, you have to honor the rights of the creators."
Many copyright lawyers agree there's a strong case against OLGA, especially in its posting files that contain the complete lyrics to copyrighted songs.
But stopping every exchange of copyrighted information between computers is impossible. Some of OLGA's mirror sites remain open, and guitarists continue to exchange tab through newsgroups.
Meanwhile, OLGA has assembled a legal team and is trying to enlist support for its position. The rallying cry, taken from an old Joni Mitchell song and displayed on OLGA's home page, is: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
Guitar Picks (www.bestware.net/davem/search.html): a giant site filled with more than 18,000 tablature documents for guitar and bass.
Harmony Central (www.harmony-central.com): tour-de-force site for all musicians.
Pub Date: 8/31/98