Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Jonathan Coulton is Still Alive, but not Glee-ful

So I don’t know if you’ve been reading the blog-o-spheres lately, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, the popular show “Glee” is butting heads with famed comedian/indie singer Jonathan Coulton.
Jonathan Coulton is a popular artist for a cappella groups to cover, with his geeky hits like "Still Alive" from the video game "Portal," the zombie anthem "Re: Your Brains," and the ode to cubicle workers, "Code Monkey." Deke Sharon even dedicated one of his blog posts on CASA to Coulton's success story in order to motivate a cappella groups to work hard, because, in his opinion, overnight success is not as simple as it looks. Jonathan Coulton “quit his job, wrote a song a week, and started making real money without a record label.” (Sharon)
Here’s the short, short version of what happened that enraged the internet so much:
Jonathan Coulton acquired the rights to cover the popular Sir-Mix-A-Lot song “Baby Got Back.” He used the same lyrics (minus a couple of miniscule changes) and wrote an entirely new, original cover using original music and accompaniment.
And it was awesome. Really awesome. So awesome that somebody from GLEE found it, realized it was awesome, and put it on the show, in the most recent episode “Sadie Hawkins.” Before the episode even aired, an anonymous source tweeted to Jonathan Coulton that GLEE was about to use his arrangement, and not only were they going to not credit him, they weren’t even going to acknowledge his existence. And just to rub salt on the wound, they sold it on iTunes.
So, of course, the Joco fans exploded when Coulton blogged about it on his website. A representative from GLEE issued a vague statement saying that someone like Coulton should be glad for the exposure, but never officially stating what they did.
At first, no one knew what to believe. Was it possible that GLEE ripped off an arrangement in such an obvious fashion that there would be absolutely no doubt in people’s minds where it came from?
Well, turns out, that’s exactly what they did. Here is each recording separately:
Here is a soundcloud mix of both songs, alternating BY BEAT:
Yikes. Turns out (and here’s the part that should interest you a cappella fans...) that even though Coulton had written original music, he was still producing a cover, and covers were not legally protected. Which means GLEE had no legal issues doing what they did, even if they DID admit to stealing the cover. (which they didn't)
Even though Coulton has basically no right to sue (although there is a small chance GLEE used the same backing tracks as Coulton, which would give him a legal leg to stand on) Coulton got the last laugh. He re-released his “Baby Got Back” arrangement in the “style of GLEE” on iTunes, and it reached the top 100 in only two days, obliterating the sale of the GLEE recording.
So…why am I reporting an already overexposed story? There are several reasons why this issue matters to you, the a cappella fan:
1) Know your legal rights.
You do it every day. Your group covers a song and posts it on Youtube. You don’t even think about the repercussions, because, honestly, is anyone even going to notice?
Well…this story proves that lightning can strike. Let’s say you produce a stellar arrangement of a song, one that no one has ever thought of before, and you post it on Youtube. Now let’s say some other group sees the video and re-creates your arrangement by rote, and then becomes famous for it. Do you have a case? If this story is any indication, then no. You don’t. Your arrangement is gone with the wind.
2) Covering an arrangement
For a minute, let’s look at the other side of this issue. I’ve seen, time and time again, groups singing someone else’s a cappella arrangement. I used to do it too, when I worked in public school. However, I always gave the original group credit. That doesn’t justify borrowing without permission, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
One of my all time favorite arrangements is “Come Together” by Spiralmouth. Turns out I’ve seen other groups cover this arrangement on Youtube and I have to wonder…how did they get the music? I know it’s not available. (I’ve looked…BELIEVE ME) This means they must have done it by rote, which means they didn’t ask for permission, because if they had, Spiralmouth probably would have sent them the music.
Now I could be wrong about this. I honestly don’t know. Maybe they did secure permission. But let’s assume they didn’t. Are they presenting an homage to a group they admire and respect or are they blatantly stealing? In the eyes of the public, it’s probably the former. In the eyes of the law, it’s the latter.
If you are going to do this (and I’m not advocating that you do), then at least give the original arranger credit. Speaking of which…
3) Credit where credit is due
Jonathan Coulton has publicly stated that he would have been 100% fine with GLEE taking the arrangement if they had just called or emailed him first. But they didn’t.
Is it better to ask for permission or forgiveness? Forgiveness is much easier, but permission is legal.
I don’t know the law very well. I’m not a lawyer and I’ve never taken a copyright law class. But after this whole debacle, I’m going to, because I want to make sure I’m protected at every cost.
I’ve mentioned many times how much I admire copyright lawyer and a cappella superstar Jonathan Minkoff. On his website, acappella101.com, he outlines what you can and cannot do with a cappella music, which applies directly to all covers.
But really, what angers me the most is that GLEE didn’t even acknowledge Coulton’s existence. They give all the credit to Sir-Mix-A-Lot, even though the music is all Coulton.
In my view, the public opinion of GLEE shot down a few points. I bet, had they acknowledged Coulton’s arrangement, even publicized the fact that his music would be on the show, they might have scored a few more fans.
The moral is, don’t break the law. And if you do, at least give someone credit for the work they did.
And in the spirit of giving credit, I must acknowledge that it was my friend, Alex, who brought this story to my attention.
Cook, D. (2013). Glee uses jonathan coulton cover without permission, composer considering legal action. Posted on January 28, at http://www.vg247.com/2013/01/28/glee-uses-jonathan-coulton-cover-without...
Hamilton, K. (2013). Glee egregiously rips off jonathan coulton [Web log post]. Posted on January 18, athttp://kotaku.com/5977149/glee-egregiously-rips-off-jonathan-coulton
Sharon, D. (2012). All you need to do [Web log post]. Posted on February 2, athttp://www.casa.org/content/all-you-need-do
Smith, C. (2013). Jonathan coulton reissues cover of baby got back ripped off by glee [Web log post]. Posted on January 29, at http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2013/01/jonathan-coulton-reissues-cover-o...
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major

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