I don't know about you, but hearing people say transcribing the notes of a tune "might" be copyright infringement irritates me profoundly.

If transcribing notes is so illegal, how are songsterr.com, ultimate-guitar.com, and various midi sites surviving (and indeed, profiting off ad money)?

Can we avoid statement like "this may be legally gray area", and instead definitively answer the question on what is illegal and not illegal?

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    Yep, I saw that earlier and it irked me too. I pointed out this exact same attitude on Programmers.SE as a factor in the Japanese software industry's lack of growth. We should get to the bottom of it, or else it's going to start stifling a lot of good discussions. May 5, 2011 at 1:35
  • Please note that there these transcriptions are user made and most likely differ from the original music track, even by small mistakes. From there, you still would have to actually perform it. I think there is not much you can do about an individual reverse engineering your piece of music, look at Beethoven. Nor can you do something about people performing it for free, look at all those YouTube covers of which none have received a claim. However, exactly reproducing the original or receiving money for it is most likely illegal unless you have the permission to do so under a contract... May 8, 2011 at 22:03
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    @Tom Beethoven's works (that is, the arrangements themselves) are public domain, the only thing you can copyright is your specific recording of that piece. This makes a lot of sense, since you expended time and effort to assemble a band, perform the recording, and master it.
    – bobobobo
    May 12, 2011 at 15:08

2 Answers 2


The vast majority of copyright infringement goes unchallenged. The fact that it's illegal doesn't mean people won't do it, whether on the internet or not. You've heard of torrent sites, yes?

This is not to mention that it depends on your specific area. It might not be illegal for someone in one country to post a transcription, but it might be illegal for someone elsewhere to do so.

If you want this definitively answered, you're going to have to hire a lot of lawyers. If you'd like to look at once piece of related law, see 17 U.S.C.A. § 110. I can't tell myself under what circumstances that would grant transcription rights, or if it does at all.

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    Apparently they're going through recycle bins at high schools in our district. If they find photocopies of music, they charge the school for everything in the music room. Absolutely disgusting, but it does happen. May 5, 2011 at 1:28
  • People go through recycle bins??
    – bobobobo
    May 5, 2011 at 1:43
  • @bobobobo: Yes, it's one of the most efficient way of spying when you suspect something and that does generate trash. Of course, this activity is again something that is only legal in some cases... May 8, 2011 at 21:58
  • +1 for "The fact that it's illegal doesn't mean people won't do it". I think the "default" answer is simple : it IS a copyright infringement to publish a tab of a song, even with mistakes. So ultimate-guitar may be closed if the copyright owners would start attacking it. But I guess that today, the tab market is less important than the music market so, thanks to piracy, that's not their #1 priority.
    – Julien N
    Nov 15, 2011 at 14:37
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    @JulienN I believe Ultimate Guitar has a licensing agreement of some sort, but I certainly agree with you in general. It would be cool if SE had a similar sort of agreement, at least for images since they're bound to get nailed on that at some point, but for now we're out of luck.
    – user28
    Nov 15, 2011 at 15:09

For the purposes of this site, I suspect most "legal issues" about copyrighted material are baloney. There are a number of Fair Uses of copyrighted material including Critique. Since critique (as in "Peer Review") is part and parcel of the StackExchange network, I think we're golden!

The only possible violation is a flagrant violation. Normal moderation ought to be sufficient to keep this under control.

  • "Fair Use" exist in United States but not in all country. At least not as wide as US. In France, the "fair use" equivalent is really restricted.
    – Julien N
    Nov 15, 2011 at 14:44
  • Understood. I temporarily forgot about the world outside my city. But do I (in the USA) need to worry about the copyright law of, say, Liberia every time I post? Nov 24, 2011 at 5:06
  • Of course no. This is just an additional information as the OP is from Canada and the rules may be different there. I see a lot of people here (France) thinking that they have a right of "Fair use" because they read it on US websites.
    – Julien N
    Nov 24, 2011 at 17:44

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