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Gleeful Plagairising

January 20, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m not a fan of Glee. It’s a vapid, shallow show about vapid, shallow people whose lives revolve entirely around bland, uninspiring remakes of songs that are actually decent in their original form (Rebecca Black’s “Friday” being an exception). It’s derivative, it’s dumb, and it’s symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with both the music and TV industries.

And they just got worse. You see, what I am a fan of is Jonathan Coulton, an indie musician from the Internet best known for his extensive “Thing-A-Week” experiment, as well as writing songs for the fantastic Portal video games. He also covered Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, rearranging it into a folky version with banjos and vocal harmonies.

So, it’s interesting that Glee has now released their own version of “Baby Got Back” that sounds a little bit like Coulton’s version. Well, actually, a lot like Coulton’s version. To the point where Coulton himself suspects that they may have directly sampled his work without his permission. I’m sure it’s fine though. It’s not like they included his revised lyrics where he substituted Sir Mix-A-Lot’s name with his own or anything…oh wait, they did. “Johnny C” is indeed part of the lyrics. Hm. Well.

Of course, this is a legal minefield due to the song being a cover. Certainly, Coulton doesn’t own the rights to the lyrics, but what makes this interesting is that the original song certainly doesn’t have those melodies. It’s an early nineties rap song, and Coulton’s version doesn’t sound remotely like a nineties rap song. The music is entirely original, and throws the arrangement straight into a legal grey area.

Legal matters are also thrown into tricky territory because Coulton’s work is released via a Creative Commons license, which is similar to copyright, but allows certain rights that copyright often doesn’t (I have one of these pinned to the side of both this and Sven vs. The Movies, if you’re curious). Coulton’s license does allow derivative works of his music without permission, but it seems the point that Glee’s producers missed is that these derivative works need to be non-profit (e.g. a fan video for Youtube is fine, ripping off his arrangement for a profit-making TV franchise is not) and, most importantly, attribution must be provided. Glee have not credited Coulton for his arrangement, so that’s two strikes against them as far as his license goes.

But there’s always the possibility that Glee directly sampled his version of the song and sang over it. Coulton does, after all, provide karaoke versions of his songs, with “Baby Got Back” being one of them, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Glee merely took this and sang over it. If this is the case, then Coulton has the law on his side and can claim recording copyright.

Regardless of the legal ramifications of all this, making use of Coulton’s version of the song without credit is still very much A Terrible Thing To Do and they should seriously reconsider. Glee is already viewed with disdain by serious musicians and music fans, and ripping off an indie artist’s work without credit is hardly going to help them win that crowd over.

Not that Glee’s producers probably care. The franchise still inexplicably rakes in tons of money from people who can somehow stand soulless reinterpretations of songs, and it will probably continue to rake in tons of money until the world explodes in a supernova.

Although they should care. A quick Google search for “Glee Baby Got Back” brings up two results that relate to the song in isolation – a page on the Glee wiki and the Youtube video itself – and everything else is an article discussing the possibility that their version stole from Jonathan Coulton. Hell, even those two results don’t ignore the controversy – the YT comments talk of little else and someone has even edited Coulton’s version into the wiki. That’s a bit of a PR disaster right there, when the Internet is more concerned about the source material than discussing the song on its own merits. Not that it has any, of course. Glee has never had merit.

It’ll be interesting to see where this ends up. I just hope Coulton gets compensation for this in some way. Not necessarily monetary (but considering the version is already on the Swedish iTunes, some royalties would be nice), but certainly acknowledging that it’s his arrangement would go a long way.

Plus it’d be nice to see some public shaming of Glee. It needs to be known that they can’t rip off small artists and expect no kind of backlash for it. After all, if someone directly covered a Glee arrangement, you can bet the producers would be calling their lawyers faster than you can say “Oh my god, Becky”

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