Has Glee broken the law on copyright?

So, it seems that the acclaimed television program Glee may have taken a step too far with one of it’s covers this time, completely ripping someone off. Or have they?

So the story so far is that a couple of weeks ago Glee released their cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. This was normal procedure as they usually release their ¬†songs two weeks in advance of the episode airing. Here is the song:

The song sounds very similar, in fact almost identical to Jonathan Coulton’s cover of Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Jonathan’s song goes like this:

The songs are practically identical. Obviously Jonathan gets upset and decides to look at taking legal action. Eventually FOX (the creators of Glee) respond by saying that “they’re within their legal right to do this”, which is completely true. The company stated that Jonathan should be happy with the exposure that he’s getting and basically suck it up. However Jon isn’t credited in the episode once, nor has he received any royalties for the iTunes release or the actual episode. FOX have essentially admitted that they’ve ripped-off Coulton.

The only case Coulton even has is if Glee directly used his audio track to create their own as that would be a textbook copyright lawsuit. Although Jonathan doesn’t really have a case anyway (FOX is too big a company to be sued), it is quite interesting to look at the case. Coulton’s licence used to create the cover states that his cover cannot differ too much from the original and that new work by Jonathan isn’t covered by copyright. Jonathan added a melody, changed the arrangement and changed the message of Baby Got Back, which some would argue is enough for Jonathan to call the song his own.

To get his own back Coulton has re-released his cover, calling it a cover of the Glee cover and is donating all the money to Glee-backed charities. Technically speaking because he did not acquire a licence to do this cover of the Glee song, he is liable for a copyright charge for covering what is his own song. If FOX were to take him to court it would make for a very interesting court case. No comment yet from Sir Mix-A-Lot.

Copyright laws and intellectual property is generally very hard to wrap your head around. Many of the facts that are being thrown around about this case are untrue, so some of this blog may be inaccurate, however my understanding is that Jonathan has no legal rights to anything that FOX has made, whether it was stolen from him or not. Ethically, what FOX did was wrong, but there is no space for ethics in business.

Harry Fox Licence