Monday, January 21, 2013

Musical Monday - Baby Got Back by Jonathan Coulton (with Paul & Storm)

There is a lot happening today. It is Martin Luther King Day. This is also the day that Obama has been inaugurated as President of the United States for the second time. But I'm going to talk about something that is truly important to the geek community: This week, the producers of the television show Glee released the cast recording of the Sir Mix-a-Lot song Baby Got Back, and the minute it hit the internet, it was obvious to anyone who had heard Jon Coulton perform that they had imitated his rendition of the song. The video here shows Coulton performing the song with his musical buddies Paul & Storm in 2007. For comparison, here is the virtually identical Glee version. They even retained the lyric changes that Coulton made in his rendition, including his reference to "Johnny C". If you want to hop on over to give the producers of Glee a thumbs down on the video, I won't mind.

One might ask why this is a big deal, after all, the original song belongs to Sir Mix-a-Lot, and not to Coulton, and presumably the producers of Glee asked for Sir Mix-a-Lot's permission to use the tune on their show. But they used Coulton's version of the song - his musical arrangement, and his altered lyrics. And under U.S. copyright law, that gives Coulton certain rights in his work. Coulton's rendition of Baby Got Back is a derivative work, defined in 17 U.S.C § 101 as:
A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.
As one can see from the definition, as a musical arrangement, Coulton's work is clearly a derivative work, and thus protected by copyright law, and Coulton should be entitled to seek compensation for the use of his work from the producers of Glee. One caveat is that I believe that Coulton has released most of his work under a Creative Commons license. If he has, then the producers of Glee could possibly use his work, but depending upon the form of license he used, they would at the very least have to attribute the work to him, and may possibly be barred from using his work for commercial purposes. However, they clearly did not attribute the arrangement to Coulton (and as of the time of this writing, still have not done so), and are using the work for commercial purposes, which probably puts them outside the ambit of any license Coulton may have used.

And the thing that is almost amazing about this situation is just how petty the benefits the Glee producers stand to gain by means of their perfidy. It is likely, had they contacted Coulton and asked to use the arrangement, he would have asked for credit and at most a relatively nominal fee. The only thing they gained by deciding to screw Coulton instead is planting the false notion in some people's heads that the Glee producers came up with it themselves. And unintentionally, they gained a moderately large internet shitstorm when their dishonesty came to light. And this isn't the first time the producers of Glee have lifted an artist's work without attribution. They also used Greg Laswell's rendition of Girls Just Want to Have Fun without giving him credit. I'll say this bluntly: The producers of Glee have no artistic talent, and no artistic integrity. And they are kind of stupid to boot, because they thought they could get away with this kind of thievery in a world in which the internet exists.

Previous Musical Monday: In the City by the Eagles
Subsequent Musical Monday: Halo by Broken Record Films

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  1. Interesting. Happens to music/lyrics as well as books/authors.

  2. @Julie Rachel Barrett: Indeed. And as the story goes on, the producers of Glee just make themselves look worse and worse. They told Coulton that they didn't need to compensate him, and that he should be thankful for the exposure.

    Except they did not, and still have not, given any public acknowledgment that the arrangement was his creation. So unless you already knew who Jon Coulton was, you are likely completely unaware of his connection to their rip off of his version. And, after a bit of digging, it has come to light that Glee has made a practice of taking innovative arrangements made by small independent artists and repackaging them as their own without crediting the source. The more you look at this, the more it becomes clear that the producers of Glee are really nasty, awful, talentless people.