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The Real Book can refer to any of a number of popular compilations of lead sheets for jazz tunes, but is generally used to refer to Volume 1 of an underground series of books transcribed and collated by students at Berklee College of Music during the 1970s. Older versions were pirated, that is unlicensed publications that paid no royalties to song authors. In 2004, Hal Leonard published a licensed edition, which pays royalties to song authors.
Musicians find it convenient to work from "the book", because it is available in different editions to suit B♭, E♭, and C (concert-pitch) instruments, as well as a bass clef edition. A band leader can conveniently call out page numbers, since each edition is also paginated identically.
History of the 'original' Real Book 
Bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley are rumored to have been responsible for producing lead sheets for the book. However, this is a myth. Compositions by Swallow, Bley, and their friends (e.g., Chick Corea) are heavily represented in The Real Book alongside jazz standards and classic jazz compositions because those were the songs that were being played most by jazz musicians in the early 1970s, when the book was created. There is also speculation that composer Stu Balcomb was heavily involved in putting the book together, given his credit in Swallow's album "Real Book" for "cover graphics", and given the presence of several of his tunes in the book. The handwriting in the Real Book matches that in the liner notes for the album as well, suggesting that the whole book was written out by Swallow. Again, this is not accurate - but Swallow knew whom to call to get the picture for his album. Only the first volume is the original. The two following volumes of The Real Book were produced—volume 2 is printed in characteristically 'rough' handwriting and transcription, while the third volume is typeset on a computer.
The transcriptions in The Real Book are unlicensed, meaning that no royalties are paid to the artists whose songs appear in the book. Consequently, the book violates copyright and is therefore illegal. In the past, it was usually sold surreptitiously in local music stores, often hidden behind the counter for customers who asked. PDF editions of the book are now often available illegally on P2P networks.
The name is most likely a play on words from the common name for these types of song folios: "fake book". It could however, have been influenced by the Boston alternative weekly newspaper, The Real Paper, launched by writers of Boston's The Phoenix after a labor dispute.
A variety of dates have been attributed to the book. The April 1990 issue of Esquire magazine featured The Real Book in the "Man At His Best" column by Mark Roman, in an article called "Clef Notes." He states, "I don't know a jazzman who hasn't owned, borrowed, or Xeroxed pages from a Real Book at least once in his career," and he quotes John Voigt, Berklee's music librarian, "The Real Book came out around 1971. The only material available in print then was crap." Another feature surfaced on April 10, 1994, in The New York Times article, "Flying Below the Radar of Copyrights." Manhattan guitarist Bill Wurtzel is quoted as saying, "Everyone has one, but no one knows where they come from." The writer of the article, Michael Lydon, says that "I got mine in 1987 from a bassist who lives in Queens and who attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston; many in jazz circles suspect that students there reproduced the first copies of it in the mid-70's."
The most recent development has been the RealBookSoftware that contains all four transpositions (C, B♭, E♭, bass). This is legal due to the app only offers the chord changes of the song while omitting the melody.
Music sequencing software Steinberg Cubase has "Real Book" as a choice in Page Mode Setting, meaning that the key signature would be displayed only once at the top of the page in the notated sheet music, as is the style in the fake book.
History of the 'new' Real Book 
In 2004, the world's largest print music publisher, Hal Leonard, obtained the rights to most of the tunes contained in the original Real Book and published the first legal edition, calling it the Real Book Sixth Edition in tacit acknowledgment of the five previous illegal versions. The cover and binding are identical to the 'old' Real Book, and the books even employ a font which is remarkably similar to the handwritten style of the originals although the new editions are more legible. The other main improvements are that most of the editing mistakes have been corrected; and, of course, every tune has been licensed and the copyright owners are being paid for the use of their intellectual property. The books were initially priced cheaper than the illegal ones were usually sold for—with the stated intention of driving the underground distributors out of business or boosting their own sales of the book.
Hal Leonard subsequently released The Real Book, Volume II, Second Edition in answer to the Real Book, Volume II. In July 2006 they released The Real Book, Volume III, Second Edition, and in December 2010, The Real Book, Volume IV. The Real Vocal Book, Volume I, Second Edition also appeared recently, clearly a (more legible) response to the old book of similar title.
These books contain much, but not all, of the same material as their counterparts; and in most cases, but not all, charts from the new Hal Leonard books are compatible with the Real Book charts. In some cases, compatibility issues occur where corrections have been made to some of the infamous mistakes in the 5th edition charts; in other cases, 6th edition charts may reference changes on better or more authoritative recordings.
The Hal Leonard edition has had a few printings where the publisher has corrected the lead sheets, yet they still published the changed books as the sixth edition.
As of February 2013, Hal Leonard had released more than 60 editions of the Real Book. The latest include The Real Book – Vol. 5; The Real Book, Vol. 1 now packaged with a USB flash drive containing 240 backing tracks; and The Real Rock Book, Vol. 2. Popular Real Book titles also focus on jazz artists Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and genres including Blues, Bluegrass, Christmas, Dixieland, Rock and Worship – all using the same format as the original Real Book.
Other Real Books 
The New Real Book, also in 3 volumes, published by Sher Music Co., is another legal and readily available modern alternative. The collection of tunes in it differs from the original Real Book, but this edition offers some of the same songs, in new transcriptions and a different notation.
Some other music publishers also apply the term Real Book to their own publications - for example, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music publishes The AB Real Book. Alfred Publishing Co. has three real books.
See also 
- Ralph Patt, author of The Vanilla Book of 400 chord progressions for jazz standards
-  – Official site for legal editions
- Transposable Chord Charts to hundreds of Real Book Tunes.
- MyRealBook.com - Most of the charts included in the three Real Books, in clean PDF format, for C, Bb and Eb instruments (legal, no melodies).
- Song Index (covers dozens of fake books and real books, legal and illegal)
- Pop Song Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-history of Sampling - Article by Barry Kernfeld
- Links to audio samples of the Real Book
- Exhaustive Searchable Real Book Index - Find out what tunes are in which books.