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The most recent episode of Glee featured a cool acoustic cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Too bad Jonathan Coulton had already released exactly the same arrangement in 2005. One Hypable author explains why Glee is in the wrong.

In 2005, Jonathan Coulton bought the statutory license to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and sold a cover version featuring his own arrangement. In 2013, Glee also decided to cover “Baby Got Back” in a wonderfully creative way – by which I mean its arrangement was identical to Coulton’s. Coulton tweeted that Glee never asked him for permission, Glee didn’t care, and the Internet exploded.

So is ‘Glee’ in the right, or in the wrong?

Legally it has done nothing wrong. Glee is not required by law to credit Mr. Coulton, who did not write the original song. The show is well within its rights to spend hours and hours searching through various YouTube covers and ripping them off, rather than say, hiring someone to create original arrangements. Of course, if it has used direct samples from Coulton’s recording, there may be grounds for a legal complaint.

”jonathanRecently Coulton stated that the Glee producers had contacted him, saying:

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).

Coulton has a point (in fact, Coulton’s point is also my point). When Glee covers the original version of a song (e.g. fun.’s “We Are Young”), the band picks up exposure. This is because when I google the lyrics, I’ll see that this song was originally sung a band called fun. This might inspire me to check out (and purchase) fun.’s original version, or its album.

The problem that arises when Glee uses a cover version is painfully obvious. If I had googled “Baby got back lyrics” (prior to this fiasco), I’d see that this was a 1992 rap single by Sir Mix-A-Lot. If I had never heard Jonathan Coulton’s version (which I hadn’t), I’d probably think that Glee had thought up this new, highly original cover on its own. I’d probably be impressed. If I liked the song, I might even buy the Glee version.

So when Glee says Coulton will be getting exposure from this, let’s be clear: that’s complete rubbish. Unless he had called them out in the way he did, most of us would have been none the wiser.

What should ‘Glee’ have done differently?

jonathan coulton baby got back glee
Glee could have credited Coulton as a good will gesture to independent artists (and it still wouldn’t have had to pay him a cent). Hell, Glee could have just given him a heads up that it was planning on using it, which just seems like common courtesy and a smart PR move. It’s so disheartening that in this day and age, we don’t even expect large companies to do this. We know at the end of the day, it’s all a business, and it is all about money. But wouldn’t it be nice if they did.

Giving the arranger some love would also be ridiculously easy. Send a tweet from the official Glee Twitter linking back to the original arranger, or take five seconds to mention them in one of the many behind-the-scenes videos it drops on us each episode. As I said before – the show still wouldn’t owe Coulton any money, but it seems like the most decent way to handle the situation.

Glee itself has even set a precedent for this, as seen through its promotion of The ‘Real’ Warblers played by Tufts University Beelzebubs (who arranged and sang the majority of The Warblers’ songs), and the featuring of 2CELLOS on an episode of Glee performing their own signature version of “Smooth Criminal.” So it’s not that Glee can’t credit the arranger, it’s that it generally chooses not to.

“If this were an episode of Glee I would win. The way they’re behaving is so antithetical to the message of their show” – Jonathan Coulton


It’s especially frustrating in this case because Coulton’s arrangement was so far from the original, which featured next to no melody. If he hadn’t used the same lyrics, he probably could have released it as an original song.

When Glee covers fun., or Rihanna, or Madonna, I can very easily find out for myself who originally wrote that song. I don’t expect a list of credits to run at the end of every episode. But if it wants to rip off someone else’s arrangement note-for-note, I’d like to know who arranged it, please. Otherwise here’s a tip: employ your own arranger, there are plenty looking for work.

Basically Glee is the jerk in your class who listens to all of your great ideas, then writes them in his own essay and gets an A+. Technically, he’s done nothing wrong, but trust me when I say: no one likes that guy.

So ‘Glee,’ stop being a jerk just because you can

Note: Jonathan Coulton is not the only arranger to have been reluctantly featured on Glee. In fact, it happens more often than not, see Pedra Haden’s cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” and Greg Laswell’s arrangement of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” For more, check out this interview with Coulton, and this list.

And never fear, nice guys still exist. If you buy Coulton’s version of “Baby Got Back” before the end of February, all profits will be donated to The VH1 Save the Music Foundation, and The It Gets Better Project.

Images: Dale May, Fox

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003217053155 Liliana Baptista

    Good piece of writing!

  • http://twitter.com/Hmarjus2 Martrel A. Howard

    I don’t like the arrangement at all when I heard it I was like “What the hell is this, did you really turn this “iconic” sir mixalot song into this?? REALLY” Glee usually has great arrangements on the show but this was a Fail in my opinion. I loved the male version of No Scrubs though it was totally unexpected

    • http://dbcooper.livejournal.com P.F. Bruns

      Well, as long as you blame Jonathan Coulton, the rightful composer of the 2005 cover, that’s fine. You can also blame “Glee” for not having the same tastes as you.

      Normally, I do that too. ;)

  • Ant

    Although I completely agree with this article and agree that Glee definitely should have credited JoCo, it would’ve been nice to see some more arguments back and forth in the article rather than another one-sided argument that is similar to every angry rant regarding this topic.

    Other than that, I do hope Glee learns from this and properly credits their artists (and arrangement artists). I remember the good old days when Glee wrote their own arrangements for some songs in the past seasons and they were amazing as hell. I miss those.

    • James

      I agree that it’s pretty one sided but besides being within their legal right, Glee is coming off pretty bad. No matter how you paint it. It’s kinda like, yeah, what you did is legal but when the dedicated fan base of the show are angry about what you did, you should probably do -something- to make it right.

    • https://twitter.com/maramawhyte Marama Whyte

      Well, it is an opinion piece – and my opinion is that Glee is in the wrong. I don’t feel the need to give equal time to both sides just to create a back-and-forth argument. If I thought Glee had any legitimate reasons for using this arrangement, I would have included them.

      Of course, if anyone can think of any good arguments for Glee’s actions aside from “it’s not illegal”, we always welcome News By You posts (:

    • Bao Huynh

      Glee/Fox’s theft is inexcusable. Unless you are one of those showbiz’ lawyers siding with corporations bringing up laws to prove that they are not doing anything illegal, what possible thing can you, as a normal un-brainwashed human being, can say to justify their actions?

  • http://www.facebook.com/emileems Emilee Marie Self

    I loved JoCo’s version of “Baby Got Back.” He gave it his sarcastic style and smooth melodies. Glee’s in the wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/plischt plischt

    No matter how you see it, one thing’s for sure: Coulton is now a way more famous than he was before this debacle.

    • Ben

      Yeah, through this debacle, JoCo seems to be aiming to get a lot more publicity than getting credit/compensation.

    • andy

      and given that what he is arguing is that they should have asked him before they covered it or they should have at least mentioned it on the episode, aka two things which cannot be changed after the fact, he is clearly only pushing it this far for publicity. Everyone now knows it was very similar to his arrangement, what does he expect now?

    • Dave Maher

      Bull. You cannot use “hey, he got a lot of attention when he complained that we ripped him off” as an excuse for ripping him off. Coulton already had a dedicated fanbase, a relatively small niche one to be sure, but as dedicated as any major artists can claim. Without that notably tech-savvy group of fans his complaint would never have been heard and he would not have benefited from the “exposure”

  • Meur123

    Yeah, this is pretty stupid. Glee weren’t covering Sir Mix-a-lot’s song, they were covering JoCo’s cover of Sir Mix-a-lot’s song.

  • Mia

    Interestingly, JoCo has his selling for .99 cents and so does Fox while usually all their other songs sell for 1.29.

    • http://dbcooper.livejournal.com P.F. Bruns

      He’s also donating all post-licensing proceeds of his “cover of Glee’s cover of his cover” (actually just a duplicate of his original track) to VH1′s “Save the Music” campaign and the “It Gets Better” campaign.

  • http://blackrapture.tumblr.com/ thegoodshipdestiel

    I only know one thing for sure: Coulton’s arrangement, and consequently Glee’s cover of it, sucks it big time. Ugh let’s all move on.

    • http://www.eigakanthemovietheater.blogspot.com Jenny Leigh

      Yeah I don’t like the song, nor am I a fan of this cover song. I agree.

    • http://twitter.com/SarahKHansen S.K.Hansen

      OMG I know! Obviously we should only care if it was a song we like, but it sucked so who cares? Just like how we only have to care about helping the cute starving children, not the ugly ones. Moral integrity is so overrated.

  • Lau

    But honestly, who really cares? not to be a jerk or anything but you’re just beating this whole thing to a pulp. Glee should have recognized him but they didn’t, oh well, at least JoCo or whatever got some spotlight. I mean I haven’t ever heard of him until now. But come one people, JUST MOVE ON it’s a TV show, not your life.
    P.S. please step back and take a breath before you insult me or call me stupid for just giving my opinion on the matter. That is all.

    • http://twitter.com/scarlet_fever Eleanor

      Personally, I care. I’m studying music and I worry about the state of ownership rights, especially how it will affect me in the future if I decide to explore songwriting as a possible career. Jonathan Coulton is getting the spotlight because his fans are, rightly, angry that he isn’t being recognised. There are at least 3 other songs I’ve seen mentioned that this has happened with, but because they aren’t as well known, they never got this exposure. Now, because it’s a more well known artist, the previous musicians are able to state that their work was stolen too. Glee is meant to be a show that celebrates music, and what they’ve done is a pretty poor way of doing so.

      • Trey

        I’m also studying music and I had a course on the legal rights and copyrights. What Glee did was legal. They did actually change some small parts in the arrangement so legally they did nothing wrong. They probably should have at least let him know they were using a version very similar to theirs, but they didn’t have to.

        • http://twitter.com/scarlet_fever Eleanor

          Yes, but just because what they did was legal in the US (in the UK it’s a breach of copyright, as the melody/orchestration is covered separately from lyrics) doesn’t mean it’s morally right to do. I can understand a version being similar – after all, an acoustic cover of Baby Got Back could be done by anyone – but the fact that the overall melodic structure is exactly the same is enough for me to say they stole it.

          • Trey

            It is similar, not exactly the same. I do agree that they should have let him know they were using a version that sounds pretty much exactly the same. I actually was in contact with Coulton on Twitter and he said he has nothing against the creators or the show at all. It was just a situation that got handled the wrong way by both parties and it’s in the past now.

          • http://twitter.com/scarlet_fever Eleanor

            Yeah, I have nothing against those that weren’t involved, but it’s kind of just easier to refer to it as Glee as a whole (and Coulton is awesome on Twitter.) For me, it’ll be over when they apologise and at least publicly acknowledge the situation. It’s so similar that little differences possibly make me more angry, because it’s just trying to cover their backs while taking the creative work of other people.

    • NatalieFisher

      John Green, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Jonathan Ross, Neil Gaiman, The Nerdist, Wired, Forbes.. these people and their millions of followers care, because JoCo is part of the DIY internet entertainment community. Because they care and have vocalised this as a problem, it has spotlighted that this is something wrong. It isn’t like people were fine about Glee doing this to other artists and pissed off about it because it’s Coulton – it’s because a lot of people weren’t even aware of the problem in the first place, and Coulton and his community are big enough to spotlight the problem.

      Though I’m not sure who you’re bothering to write comments on articles on this website when your opinion on the matter is”it’s a TV show, not your life.” We’re a fandom website. The writers and readers here obviously take this stuff seriously and have strong opinions on it.

    • http://dbcooper.livejournal.com P.F. Bruns

      You cared enough to comment.

    • Kelsea

      It’s obvious that you are not involved in anything creative. To work so hard on something, especially when you are making a living as a relatively unknown artist, and to have your work ripped off… Accomplish all that and then come back and say it’s not a big deal.

      • Trey

        It does suck, but they changed parts of the arrangement so it is legal. It seems as though he was ripped off, and maybe Glee should have let him know they were using a version very similar to his, but it isn’t the exact same thing.

  • http://dbcooper.livejournal.com P.F. Bruns

    Your analysis leaves out a salient fact: Coulton didn’t “arrange” his cover; he composed a completely new song that used Sir Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics. Since he also released it separately without lyrics as a karaoke track, the legal waters are far from clear.

    Otherwise, good analysis, though.

  • Kelsea

    My thoughts exactly! So tired of hearing people say “Big deal, legally they did nothing wrong, JC should just shut up and enjoy the publicity, they’ve done it a million times before so what’s the big deal now”. Everyone knows that this is wrong, legal or not. Put one extra line in the credits that notes Coulton’s work. Costs nothing!

  • Bruce W

    Lost in all this rancor is all the good Glee has done for music artists for 3 1/2 seasons and counting, by putting their songs on prime-time TV for millions to hear, week after week. This helps drive the sales of those artists’ songs, and for struggling or obscure artists, it helps bring them to the attention of many people who wouldn’t know them otherwise. What other show in the history of television has exposed so much music (400-plus songs?) in, to date, 77 episodes? Glee also has paid many artists a lot of money for the rights to use those songs. Almost all of them were NOT free. We’re lucky to have Glee, and so is the music community. Yet when Glee makes a mistake — in this case, not openly crediting Coulton even though they weren’t obligated to do so — the show is attacked as if it was the worst thing ever to happen to music. If that were true, why have hundreds of artists consented to have their music performed on Glee? We live in an imperfect world, and that includes Glee. I’d have given Coulton a shout-out. They didn’t. But I also prefer to see the big picture. My advice to those who don’t, and prefer to freak out over this with indignant rage, is to eat a cookie and take a nap.

    • Dave Maher

      Not legally obligated. Morally? In, indeed, their goal had been to “promote” all these songs you would think they would actually be looking for chances to promote them, rather than looking for legal loopholes to avoid it. So I call BS on you claim of Glee as a music promotion service. They only thing they are trying to promote are their paid sponsors. Everything else is so much grist for the mill

      • Bruce W

        Where did I call Glee a “music promotion service”? Kindly reread my comment and get your facts straight. Glee is a business enterprise–a commercial entertainment–and in the course of paying many artists much money for the use of their music, a byproduct is that such music gets exposure which helps those artists. That’s all I said. So now I must call BS on your claim that I proclaimed Glee “a music promotion service.” I simply made a reasoned argument that some fans aren’t seeing the big picture, and after your comment, clearly this remains the case.

        • Dom

          And if you do not consent to them using your music – they call you homophobic on twitter

          • Bruce W

            You’ve got your facts wrong if you’re alluding to the Kings of Leon incident two years ago. Murphy bitched about it in an interview (don’t think he even HAD a Twitter account then) but didn’t say they were “homophobic.” But Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon DID tweet this to Ryan Murphy: “See a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra.” What does that sound like? (He later apologized.)

    • http://twitter.com/scarlet_fever Eleanor

      Personally, I think Glee did some great things at its beginning – it exposed a lot of topics to people that weren’t being discussed. Unfortunately, by not crediting Coulton (and telling him he should be happy for the free exposure, which he’s only getting because of his loud fanbase) they’ve made me question how many of their arrangements which I loved at the time weren’t actually a result of their own creative team, and so far, I’ve been saddened to find out that some of my favourite ones seem to be taken from other artists with no mention of the original arrangement (Dancing with Myself being a definite case for me.) It’s a terrible thing to happen to music, because it encourages others to abuse the legal system to plagiarise and it stops musicians from being so willing to share their work on the internet. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a very deliberate action, and undermines the core message of its own show.

    • Bao Huynh

      I just ate a cookie and I laughed so much reading your post some of it got splattered on my screen :-( Glee, a show that helps independent artists get some recognition? Sure, provided that they credit the original creators first. Of the 400 songs you say, how many of them are original, or not crazily popular at the time?. Also, PSY, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears… and the likes do not need more promotion.How many indie artists have their popularity rightfully boosted by Glee? This show basically rips off and lives on trends and pop culture. This is the one rare occasion in which they use an unpopular song, and they f*cking “forgot” to credit the maker.

  • http://twitter.com/Merina2 Merina

    BRILLIANT article, I agree completely!

  • Trey

    I do agree that Glee should apologize for not giving him credit, but they did everything legally. And honestly, and I know this is going to sound horrible, but I feel like the only reason Coulton is giving money to charity if you buy his song is just to take money from the Glee version. He says Glee is going against what their show is about, but the way he is “getting back at them” isn’t right either. Give to a charity because you mean it not out of spite. That’s something Glee would never do.

    • http://twitter.com/scarlet_fever Eleanor

      But by doing this, they’ve gone against what their own show is about too – there was an episode in series 1 (I think it was Sectionals?) where the other groups took the New Directions’ arrangements/choreography and the group were furious that there was nothing they could do. I don’t think Glee really deserve to make a profit off the song because they still haven’t publicly acknowledged that it wasn’t the work of the arrangers on the show, and have told Coulton to be happy for the exposure, which he’s only really getting because his fans are so up in arms about it. By donating money to some worthwhile charities, he’s directing the cash flow from a show with morally questionable ethics regarding music to charities that do real good for music in the workplace. I’d judge him far more if he kept the money for himself, and I don’t want to buy the Glee version because it would encourage them to steal from other independent artists using legal loopholes in the US.

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