Monday, February 4, 2013

Current Events: Coulton, Glee, and Baby Got Back

I've mentioned Jonathan Coulton on this blog before, and many of you know I've presented academic conference papers on him. Coulton's is an interesting music business case because he's one of few popular musicians (maybe the first) to make a living without signing onto a record label. Instead, he sells his music online (through Creative Commons licenses), tours, does cruises, and writes music for video games and TV shows.

Maybe sometime I'll get around to posting highlights from my Coulton paper, but for now I just wanted to highlight a current event. Other sources can present the situation better than I, so I'll give a brief overview with links if you want to know more.

Last week, Fox TV's Glee did a cover (popular music's word for a new arrangement of a popular song) of Sir Mix-a-Lot's racy "Baby Got Back." "So what?" you say. Well, Glee's version sounds suspiciously like Jonathan Coulton's 2005 cover, borrowing the melody that Coulton wrote (the original was rapped) and even possibly the original audio. And Fox did not contact Coulton or site him in any way. Someone from Fox told Coulton he should be grateful for the exposure—except the the Glee's
viewers have no idea Coulton was even involved.

Has Jonathan Coulton been robbed? Can he do anything about it? The answers are complicated. Music rights have always been a problem since the first person heard a melody and then performed it somewhere else, claiming it as their own. In this case, since both Coulton and Glee's versions are covers, they license the music from Sir Mix-a-Lot. Copyright does not protect these covers, so Coulton does not have recourse from that angle. Now, as he explains on his blog and NPR's On the Media, Coulton does have copyright protection on his original sound files—which Glee may have used.
For more about the copyright angle, you can read this story from the Economist.

So what has Coulton done in the mean time, while his lawyers figure out the details? He has re-released his original cover of "Baby Got Back," retitling it "Baby Got Back (In the style of Glee)" and asked fans to purchase it on iTunes, while donating the proceed through February to charity. So far, his cover has hit the top 100 downloaded iTunes tracks, which Coulton thinks is "amazing and hilarious."

Did Coulton do the right thing? Is Fox to blame? Is this an issue that should be dealt with in the next iteration of copyright law? Comments are welcome, as always.

Vocab: cover

P.S. Those of you who read this blog through an RSS feed should click over to the site and check out the hilarious and fun covers in the Featured Vocab box this week.


  1. Any way you could post links to the two versions of the song? Thanks -- keep up the blogging!

    1. Hi Brooke,
      The On the Media link about has YouTube links to both the original and Glee versions.

      You can listen to Coulton's version here (under "Thing a Week One"):