Jonathan Coulton is, of course, the guy behind “Still Alive” from Portal, and a litany of geek songs usually set to music videos made in World of Warcraft.
He’s not selling out arenas, but he tours regularly (and sells out clubs), releases albums, and is a reasonably well-known musician. Which makes it rather weird that Glee decided to lift his arrangement of “Baby Got Back” wholesale without telling him.
Let’s start with the evidence. Here’s Coulton’s cover from six years ago:
And here’s Glee’s version, which runs next week:
This is complete, by the way, with all changes Coulton made to the song. Including referring to himself in it.
You might be thinking “Man, that is going to be one fat lawsuit”, but unfortunately the answer to that might be no, or rather Fox might think it’s no. Coulton’s music is distributed under a Creative Commons license, and that does allow you to goof around with somebody else’s work substantially.
Unfortunately for Fox, the sticky part there is that Coulton’s covers are NOT under a CC license. So they might be in some pretty serious legal trouble. Adding gasoline to this particular forest fire, those that are under a CC license are under a non-commercial license, and that, uh, Fox has already been selling it without Coulton’s consent. It’s likely that they got the approval of Sir Mixalot and figured “Eh, we’re good”, which actually is not the first time Fox has figured all they have to do is cut the artist a check. Or, for that matter, the first time Glee has decided to rip off another artist and give him zero credit for his work.
There’s also the small matter that Glee is an enormous profit machine, so Coulton could make a very clear legal argument that they were violating his copyright, regardless, just by putting his arrangement on the show.
Baffling also is that, even if they were fully legally in the clear, did they really think Coulton’s fans wouldn’t notice?
Considering the show’s creator has a long history of mature, polite, and intelligent disagreement with artists over his work, we’re sure that this particular saga will wrap up with a check cut and a polite handshake. Absolutely. No question. Honest.
UPDATE: The New Noise Thriller pointed us towards a section of law that makes this whole thing about a thousand times more awful. Basically, under the license Coulton paid for, he’s not covered under copyright. So Glee’s producers could have contacted Coulton, and credited him with the arrangement, and done so with zero financial obligation. Ever.
It is worth noting that the recording might heavily sample from Coulton’s original, and if so, they owe him money for using his sound recording.
But even if it’s just a note-for-note imitation, you’ve got to wonder what the hell those involved were thinking.