Glee-Coulton Copyright Commotion

It isn’t news that people seem to think that “on the Internet” equals “free for us to use in any way we see fit.”  It happened with NickMom.  It happened to Kristine and photos of her baby Cora who passed away from congenital heart disease.  It has even happened to both B and to myself with scrapers taking our content for their own uses.  This instance, however, is a bit bigger.

In 2006, a former computer programmer turned musician, Jonathan Coulton, wrote a cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”  He made some major alterations including turning it into a light acoustic, almost folksy, song, including duck quacks where curse words might be, and changing a “Mix-A-Lot” reference to “Johnny C.”

Everything seemed to be fine until a fan of Coulton’s spotted his song on iTunes.  Not under his name, mind you, but as a song for an upcoming episode of Glee.  Furthermore, he didn’t appear to be credited.  Many people figured that there was some kind of mistake, but then the song played exactly the same on the episode itself.  And I mean, exactly the same.  It had the same melody, the same duck quacks (barely heard like someone tried to “scrub them out” but failed), and even the changed “Johnny C” lyrics.  Furthermore, Glee is selling “their version” on iTunes without crediting or publicly acknowledging Coulton in any way.

Sound Cloud even put up a comparison.  You can put on some headphones and listen to the two together.  I did and couldn’t tell them apart.

Coulton tried to get in touch with them and was told that he should be thankful for the “exposure.”  You know, that massive exposure that one gets when a big television show on a major network steals one’s work and doesn’t credit one in any way, shape, or form.  They claimed that they were within their legal rights to do what they did.

The kicker:  They might just be.  It turns out that, thanks to the complicated twists and turns of copyright law, If Artist A makes a song, Artist B makes a derivative work of that song, and Big TV Show C uses Artist B’s version, they just have to pay Artist A.  Jonathan Coulton’s only possible legal avenue centers around the possibility that Glee took his exact audio tracks and used those instead of recreating them.

You see, at one point, Jonathan released his source tracks for a Creative Commons fundraiser.  Some people believe that Glee took these tracks and used them for their own version.  The problem here is that the license they were released under was Non-commercial.  This means that I could take them and release a version of me singing to the song, but I can’t sell that version or use it in a commercial work.

You know, like a television show.

This situation is still developing and it isn’t clear whether Jonathan Coulton will get any credit or payment from Glee.  Since Coulton’s song was copied, many other artists have come forward (or have had their previous claims publicized more) about Glee ripping them off as well.

A television show about underdogs whose only recourse is their singing skills stealing from other artists and using their mega-corporation’s legal might to make sure that they can get away with it?  I’m not sure if that’s irony, but it is extremely repugnant.  It almost makes me want to start watching Glee just so I can quit watching in protest.  (Almost, but not quite.)

Instead, I think I’ll buy a song or two from Jonathan Coulton’s shop.  In fact, if I buy his newly released cover of Glee’s cover of his cover of Baby Got Back (that is to say, his original version), he’ll donate the proceeds to charity.  A very classy move by Jonathan Coulton in response to Glee’s much-less-than-classy move.

The bottom line here is the same as pretty much every case that I detailed in the beginning of this post.  Had Glee offered to pay Jonathan Coulton for permission to use his arrangement, he likely would have agreed.  Had they asked politely, not offering payment but only credit, he still might have agreed.  However, to take the arrangement, give no payment or credit, and try to claim that this gives the artist exposure is flat out wrong.  When it comes to copyright, the rule of thumb is “Ask permission first”, not “Seek forgiveness, not permission.”