‘Glee’ Is Back With ‘Baby Got Back’ Furor

Glee's 'Baby Got Back'

Glee’s ‘Baby Got Back’

As Glee is poised to return Thursday after a six-week hiatus, there’s a furor in the Glee-verse, and haters are using it to slam the show with a vengeance. They’re snarling that Glee “plagiarized” the work of obscure but beloved Internet artist Jonathan Coulton who, in 2009, transformed Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back rap vulgarity of 1992 into a tender ballad. Glee used Coulton’s arrangement for this week’s show, where it’s performed by NYADA glee club Adam’s Apples.

The horror!
Here’s the thing: As I’ve said in my tweets, those who claim Glee plagiarized Coulton need to look up “plagiarism” in the dictionary.
Plagiarism means not only to use someone else’s work, but to present it as if that work belonged to you. Glee has done no such thing. Glee hasn’t claimed to have created Coulton’s arrangement any more than Glee claimed to have written the original song.  As a weekly TV musical which steadily needs new material, Glee simply used them both.
But Glee didn’t have to pay them both. Like Coulton, Glee had to pay royalties to Sir Mix-A-Lot for use of his original song. But Glee had no legal obligation to pay Coulton for his new arrangement of the song in his own cover version with a distinctive new melody. And that’s the law.
According to the Copyright Act, if you alter an artist’s song, you can’t copyright that unless you get permission from the artist. The original composer always has copyright. A cover artist doesn’t.
(THIS JUST IN: Please read the comments section below for updates on why Glee apparently DID violate Coulton’s rights by using his instrumental tracks, not just the arrangement. If that’s the case, I stand corrected. And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post:)
Granted, that doesn’t mean Glee can’t acknowledge Coulton in some way, and perhaps the show should. But really, Glee has used other artists’ arrangements a number of times, and no one’s howled like this — until now.
In Season 3, Girls Just Want To Have Fun was a slowed-tempo, melancholy version of Cyndi Lauper’s spirited pop-rocker — a version done earlier by Greg Laswell. In Season 2, Glee’s similarly slowed-tempo, melancholy version of raucous early Beatles rocker I Wanna Hold Your Hand had been sung by T.V. Carpio in the 2007 film Across the Universe. There may be other cases, but I know of those.
And btw, when Adam Lambert wowed American Idol with a downbeat, minor-key, dramatic, almost Middle Eastern spin on Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, he was simply copying an arrangement performed earlier on Rock Star Supernova by former Houston singer Dilana. Did he credit her? Or, for that matter, did Bruno Mars credit The Police when he recorded Locked Out of Heaven (another song on Glee this week), which clearly apes that group’s early ’80s work?
Besides, where would Glee give credit to artists for using their revised arrangements of songs that the artists didn’t write, but simply covered, as Glee does? Not on end-credits — even the original songwriters aren’t credited there. So where? A letter? A press release? Social media?
I do think it’s poor form not to acknowledge the origins of such arrangements publicly. A tweet, at the least, would help. Give credit where it’s due, even if you don’t have to do so.
But though it hasn’t formally acknowledged Coulton, to my knowledge, Glee is playing by the rules. Glee is paying original composers — a lot — for use of their songs, but Glee doesn’t have to pay for rearrangements in cover versions.
If Glee had bizarrely claimed to have concocted Coulton’s arrangement on its own, that would be plagiaristic, even if it had no legal repercussions. But Glee made no such claim. Glee simply used the arrangement — a use which some would say is a tribute. After all, as many obscure artists have learned after Glee has broadcast their music to millions, such tributes can pay off.
It’s not like Coulton isn’t getting lots of publicity and exposure over this — publicity and exposure which only can help his career. We wouldn’t be talking about him so much now if Glee hadn’t done this.
It’s too bad he’s also at odds with Glee in the process. But as they say, that’s show biz.
— Bruce Westbrook
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17 Responses to “‘Glee’ Is Back With ‘Baby Got Back’ Furor”

  1. cnsublett Says:

    There’s a difference. Jonathan Coulton changed the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” in his cover version, and Glee copied the lyric change, so they are, in fact, violating his copyright as I understand it. He also re-wrote the tune, for pity’s sake – it’s not just a slowed-down version of the original. While Jonathan released his version under a free license, it requires attribution and non-commercialization. Glee has complied with neither. Coulton’s version is protected, and Glee may have to pay up. I hope so – it’s a shame that Coulton’s work won’t be credited, let alone compensated.

  2. farsider Says:

    Yes, as I also pointed out, he rewrote the “tune” (not sure there ever was one), and I’m aware of the lyric change. But I still don’t think he can copyright that version of the song without Sir Mix-A-Lot’s permission, and from what I’ve heard, he lacks that. A song is either copyrighted or it’s not. I don’t think his cover version is. But legalities aside, Glee should credit Coulton in some way–though you could argue that playing his version for millions of people is credit in itself.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Amanda (@eruditechick) Says:

    Don’t think broadcasting it to millions counts as giving credit. Exposure, sure, but useless and moot if not credited. Tweens watching Glee probably aren’t going to be made aware of the fact that Jonathon Coultonactually created this version of the song they loved.

    Not arguing the legality of the issue, simply what counts as giving credit where it’s due, which I don’t think Glee’s actions accomplish.

  4. farsider Says:

    Speaking of credit, maybe you’re not giving tweens enough credit. Seems to me Coulton is all over the ‘net right now due to this situation–before the episode even airs. No, I’m not construing broadcasting the song as “credit,” but I do think it achieves the same thing if not far more than simply sending out a tweet saying “Hey Jonathan, thanks for your arrangement.” And how else would you have Glee credit him? They don’t announce on the show who writes the songs, much less who did the arrangements. They just perform them. Yes, Glee should acknowledge Coulton. But no, this isn’t a bad deal for him. He’s getting incredible exposure which he wouldn’t have had without Glee.

  5. Gerald Says:

    You make a great point, farsider. Almost always, I’ll either listen to the song by the original artist or the artist that inspired the version used on an episode of Glee. The thing that people need to realize is that whether you realize it or not, Glee has reinvigorated the music industry. When the show covered Fun’s song “We Are Young,” interest in both the Glee and original version peaked. This has happened countless times when Glee uses a song.

  6. farsider Says:

    Precisely, Gerald. It’s yet another reason I think Glee is the most under-appreciated show on TV. For 3 1/2 seasons it’s provided a forum for millions of people to hear hundreds of songs– a forum that’s stoked sales for many of such songs’ original artists. That’s a huge “credit” in my book.

  7. Lucksman Skillburner Says:

    Farsider, I hate to break it to you, but you’re incorrect.

    At first glance, it -appears- Glee simply covered JoCo’s version of the song and closely recreated his instrumental arrangement. If this were the case, Sir Mix-A-Lot owns the rights to the song, and would be the only one eligible to claim royalties or fees. It would be nice, but not legally necessary to credit Coulton at all.

    However, herein lies the problem: They didn’t just cover his instrumentals, but instead used his ACTUAL SOURCE TRACKS (which are legally available online under Creative Commons licensing, I own a copy of them myself), and just recorded vocals ON TOP OF IT for their version. While Mix-A-Lot owns rights to the song itself, Jonathan Coulton retains the legal copyright to his own instrumental track as produced in his studio and as licensed under his Creative Commons terms.

    Where is proof of this plagiarism, you may ask?

    Fan with expert audio analysis tools, including myself, have analyzed both tracks side-by-side. The waveforms match up almost exactly, proving they originated from the same file. If you have tools like this, I recommend you try the same to verify it for yourself.

    You can also tell by ear, without the need for fancy audio analysis. Assuming you have the iTunes version of the Glee song, listen to approximately 2:40 for “When I wanna ______ ’till the break of dawn.” At the break in vocals, listen VERY carefully for a faint “quack” sound effect. (Listen to JoCo’s version at that timestamp for reference) This quack sound was intentionally EQ’d out of Jonathan Coulton’s track, but due to limitations with audio software, there is a slight echo that remains.

    For the easiest route, you can also simply listen to a left-right stereo comparison of the whole song here: https://soundcloud.com/suudo/joco-vs-glee-baby-got-back

    Jonathan Coulton’s actual track is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, meaning people are completely free to share and remix the song as much as they like, SO LONG AS IT IS NONCOMMERCIAL.

    The moment Glee started selling the song on iTunes, and aired it on the show with advertisement breaks, they broke this license and violated JoCo’s legal copyright on the instrumental track.

    • farsider Says:

      Lucksman::
      Wow, if that’s the case, it adds a whole other dimension, and yes, that would be plagiarism, and I’m astonished Glee would do that. They’ve produced so many carbon-copy versions of songs, or versions very close to the original, that I can’t see why they’d resort to simply ripping off Coulton’s actual instrumental track. But if they did, and you’re right (and you seem to know a lot more about this than I do), then shame on Glee. And here come da lawyers.
      Thanks for the lengthy explanation.

    • jess Says:

      I’m trying but I really can’t hear that ‘quack’ on the Glee version. Just how faint is it supposed to be?

      • farsider Says:

        It’s my understanding that the quack was removed but with sophisticated equipment a slight echo can be heard.

  8. Jason G Says:

    A.) Original arrangements of previously copyrighted works have additional protections as well, steamrolled in this case.
    B.) They seem to have used his actual tracks that he created for his rendition of the song, which he has placed under the Creative Commons license stating that people can use those tracks, but not to make money.
    C.) If it weren’t for the uproar, interest in the song would have increased for Glee’s and Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s and not Coulton’s one iota if not for outside notoriety.
    D.) In their meager defense, I don’t think that it’s that they don’t care, but they are under production deadlines that involve lots of casting, costuming, and choreography. Crediting the arranger simply slides way down the importance scale into “don’t care all that much” territory.

    • farsider Says:

      Jason G:
      If all this is true, then I don’t think production deadlines constitute any defense at all. And it’s not about crediting Coulton–it’s about paying him. And it sounds to me like Glee will need to pay him.
      Thanks for the insights.

  9. Black Pig Says:

    I will declare now I am a Coulton fan. I’ve seen a few articles around about this and he has the rights to release his version but not as a derivative work that would give him copyright claim to the altered lyrics. However there is plenty of evidence that Glee didn’t just copy his arrangement but actually used his musical arrangement, you can find side by side acoustic analysis in Coulton’s own website about it. Not just tracks played alongside one another but actual waveform analysis showing key audio points would be nearly impossible to recreate as a separate individual recording. As this is licensed under Creative Commons if Glee have used his actual recording then they are in breach of copyright on that issue. It also says a great deal that the official Glee version has very quickly been taken down from the US Itunes store.

    That is the legally and ethical side, as a Coulton fan I agree with the exposure argument and regardless of a full credit (which whilst fair doesn’t have to happen necessarily) people are going to find out about it, and this ground swell will be a good thing for an artist who exists outside the normal musical industry. I am not a Glee fan and I never watch it, but I have to agree about the driving of interest to the songs covered. Even if you didn’t know Coulton covered this song, an internet search will drive you in his direction at some point.

    One last thing, the song was originally released by Coulton in 2006 as part of his thing a week series not 2009. Interestingly enough then it caused a great deal of interest in him as well!

    • cnsublett Says:

      The Glee version is still available via the iTunes store – I think it was taken down briefly but it has been up there for a few days now. JoCo tweeted on 01/24: “I am pretty angry. I have news and will write about it soon.” He hasn’t expanded on that to my knowledge; there’s no new update via Twitter or his blog. I shudder to think what he has to report.

    • farsider Says:

      Black Pig:
      If Glee took the song off iTunes, that says it all But they still put it there in the first place, and they still used it on the episode, right? So a price must be paid.
      Glad your guy Coulton is getting all the exposure here. It should do him some good.

  10. theslackerinitiative Says:

    I don’t think it is fair to say only “haters” were outraged by the Baby’s Got Back thing. I am a sucker for cover songs, and I loved hearing Glee’s spin on other works. As a fan of Jonathan Coulton, I felt outrage on his behalf.

    But I felt personally betrayed by Glee. I never scoured their end credits because I always assumed that they were performing their own arrangments, and that the arrangements of someone else would be credited if they were not. Because it is the right thing to do. Plagiarism exists when you fail to cite your sources, as this passively implies to your audience that the work you have presented is your own. This is textbook plagiarism, and the exploitation-for-profit of a loophole in copyright law. I personally don’t want anything else to do with Glee or FOX until they apologize and retroactively credit anyone whose work they have implied was their own. They don’t need to cut a check, just admit they were wrong to go about things this way.

  11. farsider Says:

    First, you are incorrect to state I said “only” haters were outraged by this incident. I said no such thing. I stated the fact that haters (and there are many) were using this incident as yet another excuse to trash Glee. You dispute this? But I wasn’t calling anyone and everyone who was upset about this a “hater.” Some fans of the show were upset too. I get that.
    You also state you “assumed they were performing their own arrangements.” Assuming anything isn’t the best policy, and that’s on you. Glee, like any other network show which plays music in the background, has no obligation to list extensive credits for such music or anything else (the owners of locations where filming was done, who handled craft services on the shoot, the names of all the costume designers, the names of all the musicians for the tracks–you could go on and on). Sorry you’d assume this would be done, but that’s not the way brief end-credits work for a TV show–ANY TV show. There’s no inherent failure by not listing every single person who in some way contributed to a production in the end-credits. And by not doing so, where is the plagiarism in that? If you CLAIM a work is your own, and it’s not, then that is plagiarism. Glee did not claim this, yet you somehow construe this as “textbook plagiarism.” I work for a law firm, and I can tell you that such a statement is incorrect.
    Glee never has “implied” anything on the show was its own creative work simply by not listing a particular name in the end-credits. You are ‘way off-base here in your assumptions.
    However, I can see how Coulton’s fans who are heedless of these facts would be upset. After all, even if Coulton had no legal claim to this music, he created the melody and the arrangement, and Glee’s use of it should have merited some kind of informal shout-out, perhaps via social media, to single him out and thank him for his work. But as I understand it, Glee owed Coulton nothing financially and nothing in terms of crediting him, Glee did not commit plagiarism or any other illegality, and it’s sad that such a groundbreaking series which has done so much good for the music industry is singled out for what is, at most, a lapse in tact and is attacked with the intensity that followed this incident.

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