Fans of indie musician Jonathan Coulton were incensed last week when an alleged Glee version of “Baby Got Back” surfaced on the internet that seemed to shamelessly rip off Coulton’s distinctive arrangement of the 1992 Sir Mix-A-Lot song. Last night, that cover version was confirmed as an official Glee track when it appeared on the mid-season premiere of the Fox show, and is currently for sale on iTunes.
“It’s a little frustrating. Whether or not they’re in the right legally, it doesn’t seem like the best way to handle it. If you’re going to claim that you’re giving an artist exposure and they should be grateful — there’s a right way to do that. Contact them ahead of time. Say this is great, we’re going to talk about it on our blog and tell all our fans that they should be fans of yours. We’re going to put a credit in the show. That doesn’t cost them anything. It’s a show with something like a $3.5 million budget for each episode, but there are still so many free things they could have done to engender goodwill.”
Coulton said that while his lawyers have been looking into the copyright issue, it seems unlikely that he will have any legal recourse. ”It seems that because of the compulsory license I purchased when I made a cover of this song, the arrangement itself is not protected under copyright, although it’s the darkest gray of the gray areas [of the law]… While there may be some weird offshoot of the law, it doesn’t seem like something where a little guy could sue to get any satisfaction.”
After the “Sadie Hawkins” episode aired, Coulton posted a tweet that read “I am pretty angry,” and elaborated further on his blog:
Well, they aired it, seemingly unchanged. And it’s now for sale in the US iTunes store. They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure). While they appear not to be legally obligated to do any of these things, they did not apologize, offer to credit me, or offer to pay me, and indicated that this was their general policy in regards to covers of covers. It does not appear that I have a copyright claim, but I’m still investigating the possibility (which I consider likely) that they used some or all of my audio.
After the track first leaked, Coulton asked audio-savvy fans on Twitter to analyze the similarities between the two tracks, speculating that portions of his actual recording may have been lifted for the Glee version, particularly the hand claps and a duck quack sound he had substituted for an expletive. At least one fan, Paul Potts, conducted an in-depth analysis of both files during the duck quack, and while he says it was hard to prove definitively using only the compressed Fox audio, the waveforms appear remarkably similar.
“I’ve thought a lot about what satisfaction I can possibly get out of this situation and I’m not sure yet what the answer is,” said Coulton. “I’m still looking into what I consider to be a very real possibility that they used the audio tracks… That would be a pretty cut and dry violation. You can’t just use somebody’s audio without their permission. If they did, there’s not much question that they’re violated my copyright, as I understand the law. There’s still a chapter yet to come.”
Coulton’s willingness to speak up and enlist the support of his online audience also prompted other artists to come forward, claiming that their song arrangements had been lifted wholesale by Glee for songs aired on the show and sold for profit on iTunes.
DJ Earworm, a.k.a. the San Francisco-based mashup artist Jordan Roseman, pointed out that a 2012 Glee cover of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” similarly appeared to be lifted from his arrangement of the song, as did singer/songwriter Greg Laswell, who told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011 that his version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” also appeared to have been used without permission on the Fox show.
“Of the Glee version, I think they have enough talent over there that they shouldn’t need to go rummaging through other artists’ work,” said Laswell at THR. “Public acknowledgement of their note-for-note rendition would have gone a long way.”
“It does seems to be kind of a pattern,” said Coulton. “It doesn’t seem like it could possibly be a mistake you would make if you had that legal team… They decided it was a legal risk they feel comfortable taking.”
At the very least, he suggested, they could offer to pay artists whose arrangements they use the same amount of money they would otherwise pay a musical arranger. “If they opened with that, I’m sure a lot of artists would jump at the chance.”
Still, Coulton says he isn’t interested in financial compensation so much as he is a conversation about the way Fox treats the artists whose musical arrangements they use and profit from.
“The most frustrating thing is the completely silent nature of their approach to this ‘exposure bonus’ for me. The thing I would wish for most is a frank and open and public discussion with them about what they have done, what they believe they have done and what their actual policy is on this kind of thing. And I don’t know if I’m going to get that,” said Coulton.
When asked for comment on the issue, Fox representatives did not respond.
The two songs back to back:
Reminds me of when David Cook would do covers of covers on American Idol, and the amount of backtracking he had to do as a result, to the point that he had to start mentioning on the show that he was going to cover another band's cover. Situations like these make my blood boil. Yeah, totally screw over an independent artist because it means a little more profit for you. Great idea.