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Internet musician not ‘Glee’-ful about television show
A humorous cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ode to big butts, “Baby Got Back,” was featured on the Jan. 24 episode of “Glee,” complete with acoustic guitar and soothing vocals. There was only one problem: The producers lifted the rendition, note for note, from Internet-famous musician Jonathan Coulton.
On Jan. 18, Coulton posted a link to his blog of a recording found on a “Glee” fansite that sounded almost identical to his cover, claiming it to be a song that would appear on the show. Once the episode aired, the controversy surrounding the cover blew up, with coverage on Wired.com and CNN.com. Coulton is currently trying to determine whether his actual recording was used, which could allow him to take legal action against the show, according to a Jan. 25 update to his original blog post.
This isn’t the first time “Glee” has been charged with lifting someone’s unique take on a song. Greg Laswell originally arranged the slow, mellow version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” performed by the cast of “Glee,” according to a 2011 Hollywood Reporter article. Fox, the network that airs “Glee,” is now ironically in the same situation as mashup artists like Girl Talk, who is at risk of being sued for making music using other people’s recordings. The only difference is that Girl Talk offers many of his albums for free, while Fox is making plenty of money selling its copycat covers on iTunes.
Regardless of whether “Glee” producers violated copyright law, there are still issues surrounding their appropriation of the song.
First, they didn’t ask Coulton for permission, or even notify him that they would be performing what is obviously an exact cover of his unique arrangement of the original rap song. Coulton is very progressive when it comes to sharing his intellectual property, a stance that has been described as “copyleft.” He licenses all his work through Creative Commons, a legal framework created to allow content creators to easily share their protected work. Much of his music is available for free on his website, and he encourages people to share his music and use it for noncommercial purposes. “Glee” stole from a man who loves sharing.
“I give away music because I want to make music, and I can’t make music unless I make money, and I won’t make any money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music,” Coulton wrote on his website. “This is all part of the experiment.”
The ensuing controversy is significant because media companies like Fox are so adamant about their own intellectual property rights. There is inherent hypocrisy in a big network like Fox sampling without permission while being part of the lobby for tighter copyright restrictions. 20th Century Fox Film Corp., which owns the Fox Network, is one of the six member companies of the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization that lobbied in favor of the heavy-handed Stop Online Piracy Act.
Fox has also filed numerous lawsuits regarding copyright infringement, including a 2003 case against comedian Al Franken for his use of “fair and balanced,” Fox News’ slogan, in the title of one of his books. This incident with Coulton further verifies that Fox’s efforts have little to do with protecting the rights of content creators in general and more to
do with restricting and dominating the content marketplace.
When Coulton contacted Fox, the network said it didn’t violate any copyright laws and that Coulton should be happy they used his song—even though they didn’t credit him. When it’s their intellectual property at stake, companies like Fox take copyright very seriously, but when it involves taking from someone who lacks the legal resources to fight back, it’s open season.
In good spirit, Coulton has released a cover of “Glee’s” cover of his cover on iTunes. According to his website, he will donate the proceeds from now until the end of February to two charitable organizations: the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project.