Copyright law is one of the most convoluted, confusing and backwards things I can think of after the Alabama State Constitution and the United States Tax Code. Honestly, it makes little to no sense to me by and large. So, I’m going to end up talking in analogies and about what should be right/wrong.
If you haven’t heard, recently, musician Jonathan Coulton found himself unknowingly being featured on an episode of the inexplicable Fox TV hit “Glee.” Honestly, I’ve tried to watch the show and I just don’t get the appeal. Some of the songs are okay, but they’re always very obviously doctored, which is generally a big disappointment. Though I guess that’s what kids are into these days.
Anyway, when I say Coulton was unknowingly featured on an episode of “Glee,” specifically the episode called “Sadie Hawkins,” I mean that “Glee” yanked his arrangement of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” without informing him or even crediting him at all. The song appeared on iTunes before it was shown on the episode, which is when this all started.
You can read Coulton’s story, as well as some Fox response, on “Wired.” For those that don’t want to read it, here’s the short story on what Fox said, according to Coulton: We’re within our legal rights to do this, this is our policy when it comes to covers of covers and you should be glad for the exposure (which is a load of bull because they’ve given no indication in any fashion that Coulton was involved in anything).
Now, here are the songs in question: First, listen to Coulton’s cover, which he did purchase a compulsory license to create. Interesting and very unique, right? Okay, now listen to “Glee”‘s version. Pretty much identical, right? They didn’t even change the lyrics that Coulton changed, such as “Johnny C’s in trouble.”
Now, according to Coulton and others, the law is very much a grey area when it comes to this sort of thing. And the law is already confusing enough in my opinion when it comes to creative works and copyright, so I’m going to invent a hypothetical similar situation.
Let’s say I’m part of some sketch comedy troupe, and I become very famous for a specific sketch. It’s an original sketch, people pretty much know me by it. Now, let’s say two people, Kid A and Kid B, decide to both do the sketch. Kid A asks me for permission to use and potentially alter the sketch, which I grant him, which was a nice thing for him to do for sure, potential legality aside. He then alters the sketch to fit his own personal humor, the audience and the place he’s performing the sketch at. He credits me whenever people unaware of the original sketch ask about it. He makes money off of this sketch.
Kid B was in the audience of one of Kid A’s performances. Kid B thinks it was great, so Kid B decides to do the same thing. And when I say the same thing, I mean almost exactly the same thing. He changes none of the words, none of the pacing and extremely little of the physical movements. He doesn’t ask Kid A, or even myself, for permission to do this. He tells people unaware of the original sketch that I’m the originator, of course, but never mentions Kid A at all, in spite of much of Kid A’s material being original and unique. Kid B makes money off of this sketch.
Now, in that situation, Kid B might be legally within his rights. I don’t know, to be frank. But he shouldn’t be. No one should be allowed that type of blatant theft, be it from music or otherwise. To be honest, “Glee,” which was Kid B for those having trouble following along, may have payed for the rights to the original song to do a cover. But this isn’t a case of eerie similarities between two covers. This is intellectual theft, and unashamed theft at that. And it shouldn’t be allowed.
But while it is allowed, Coulton has made a cover of “Glee”‘s cover of his cover… If you buy Coulton’s “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” between now and the end of February, proceeds will go to charity. So, not only can you stick it to the megacoporation practically taking a dump on artists like Coulton, you can also do some good. I suggest looking into it.