The Story of OLGA and Harry Fox

Once upon a time, there was a little music archive named OLGA. OLGA liked to collect lots of songs and share them with her friends. She had over 20,000 songs from all different types of music! She even had a lot of different versions of the same songs, by people who had figured out how to play them differently. That is part of what made her collection so beautiful; it was a picture of musical growth. It helped to keep the music alive for other people to play on their own guitars.

Then along came a big bad Fox, who said that OLGA couldn’t keep her songs because he hadn’t given her permission. He told her to get rid of the songs or he would huff and puff and blow them all away. (He’d learned how to do this from his cousin, the Wolf.) Actually, the only reason he was upset was because he thought that he should be the only one to keep those songs, and should charge people for using them. This Fox was obviously not interested in keeping the music fresh and alive. He didn’t want to let people learn how to play songs for their own enjoyment and that of their friends.

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I interrupt this fairy tale to talk about a grave disturbance in the world of online music. The On-Line Guitar Archive (OLGA) has been shut down by the Harry Fox Agency, an organization that issues licenses and distributes royalties for mechanical reproduction of copyrighted music.

OLGA is an invaluable resource to me as an amateur guitarist. I make no money from the music I play, and I have no intentions of making a living as a guitar player. It is a hobby, and a very important aspect of my life. Songs like Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” and Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” made me want to learn to play guitar. I learned those songs by purchasing the sheet music (which was written incorrectly) and trying to figure out what notes to add to make them sound like the records. Of course, I will never sound as good as someone who has devoted his entire life to music, but I can come close enough to call back the feelings that the original songs gave me.

These songs and songs by Tommy Shaw, James Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton (to name only a few) continue to provide me with the inspiration to learn music and pass it on to my family and friends, with my own interpretations and phrasings. They also inspire me to write my own music and share it with others — not in the interest of making money, but just to share the beauty of music and express some of my feelings in a (hopefully) beautiful way. I don’t think the Harry Fox Agency is specifically out to destroy this kind of musical sharing and inspiration, but their actions in shutting down OLGA have that effect.

The following lines are from the Harry Fox Agency’s web page:

 

What is HFA’s Role In The Music Industry?
HFA represents music publishers. We issue licenses and collect and distribute royalties for the mechanical reproduction of their copyrights. We issue licenses and collect and distribute royalties for synchronization use of their compositions in motion pictures, television films, video tapes and electrical transcriptions and many other sources.

What is a mechanical reproduction?
It is an audio-only recording, such as a phonograph record, compact disc, or audio tape. A mechanical license does not include lyric reprinting or sheet music print rights. For these rights, you must contact the publisher(s) directly.

 

Unless I’m reading this wrong, nowhere in these lines does it say that the Harry Fox Agency has jurisdiction over personal interpretations of songs shared by individuals. Song interpretations, whether posted on the Internet or scribbled on napkins, are not mechanical reproductions by the definition listed above. I think their concern is that people can use the songs for monetary gain by learning them and playing them in cover bands, so the agency demanded that OLGA be shut down. But that makes no sense. Most of the venues in which successful bands play already pay a flat fee to cover royalties on any song that gets played under that roof for a specified period of time. If a guitarist learns a solo version of “Sweet Home Alabama” from an OLGA file and then performs it at his local coffeehouse gig, that royalty should already be covered by the coffeehouse. Why shouldn’t that guitarist be able to play the song live?

Musicians learn more from other musicians than from any other source. Is the Harry Fox Agency going to start following musicians around to make sure they don’t teach anyone how to play the chords to “Stairway to Heaven?” Does any agency have the right to say what songs I can learn to play or teach to my friends?

Not in my opinion. I consider this to be an attempt to kill music, or at least make it subservient to money. The Harry Fox Agency claims to be serving the interests of the artists and music publishers, and I have no dispute with the fact that the artists deserve compensation for mechanical reproduction of their songs. But by shutting down OLGA, the Harry Fox Agency is only hurting itself. Live musicians play what the people want to hear, and the public doesn’t really care whether the Harry Fox Agency is getting its cut. If musicians are allowed to exchange information about songs, they are actually increasing the amount of money that the Harry Fox Agancy can get because more people will come to hear the songs. If the Harry Fox Agency attempts to license OLGA, they are double dipping — trying to make money two different ways on the same song.

The songs posted on OLGA are not there to harm anyone. They are there as tributes to the songwriters and as educational resources. Someone liked each song enough to spend his time to learn it and then gave his interpretation to other people so they can have the enjoyment of playing it as well. There is an ancient tradition here, going back to a time before writing even existed. For thousands of years, people have been teaching each other songs and stories to entertain. In the modern world, we have the means to make this teaching available to anyone with access to the Internet, but it is still the same thing: People teaching other people how to enrich their lives. To try to squelch that is to kill tradition as well as damage our souls.

Fortunately, there are some rebel sites that have mirrored and posted the entire OLGA catalog. Most of them are outside the United States, and are therefore out of reach of the Harry Fox Agency — for now. And the Harry Fox Agency will not keep me from getting together with my friends tonight and playing Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” just to make a private statement.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled fairy tale.

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OLGA thought about the Fox’ threat, and decided that keeping the music and the learning alive was important enough to stand up to him, so she kept on giving her friends copies of the songs. Sure enough, true to his word, the Fox huffed and puffed and blew her house in, leaving her with only a few songs that he wasn’t interested in.

Fortunately, the Fox didn’t know that OLGA had friends who had made copies of her songs, and that they were giving out the songs in other countries. So the music was still out there, available, but harder to find. And as more and more people heard about OLGA’s tragedy, they began yelling for the Fox to give back what he stole from OLGA and all the other music lovers in the world. When the Fox heard about this, he got so scared that the tip of his tail turned white and he began running away as fast as he could. He’s still running today.

Click this link for more information about the On-Line Guitar Archive’s legal battles with the Harry Fox Agency.Support OLGA:  Join the Blue Treble Clef Campaign

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