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.
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?
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