Copyright should protect artists like Jonathan Coulton, not Glee & Fox

Anna MitchellI believe that the ability to expand upon someone else’s product is a good thing.
Any piece of technology that we use today could not exist without the ability of one creator to take the product of another, and make it even better.

However, it is not a good thing to directly copy the product of another and not acknowledge in any way shape or form that you did such a thing.

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Copyright law and intellectual property are difficult, messy arenas. Like all instances of product ingenuity, covers of songs expand upon the original. Such is the case with indie musician Jonathan Coulton’s popular folk version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s rap song “Baby Got Back.”

Coulton pairs Mix’s lyrics with an original melody. His slow-paced arrangement has unique instrumentation, including banjo picking. It is very much the song “Baby Got Back in the Style of Jonathan Coulton,” and not just a copy of the original.

Coulton’s version of the song was featured in a recent episode of Glee. But Coulton was never contacted by Glee to get permission or even inform Coulton of this choice.
And, from a legal standpoint, they don’t have to.

It appears that under copyright laws, Fox only had to have permission from the original artist to air their cover of a cover of a song. Which would make sense if the cover version uses the both the original melody and lyrics. But Coulton’s musical cover exploit is just as much his own original work as it is Mix-a-Lot’s.

The cover is licensed under a Harry Fox Agency agreement between the two artists. An HFA license is supposedly designed to ensure that royalties wind up where royalties are due (in this case — to Sir Mix).

The problems with this license is it gives all the rights and royalties to the original creator of a song — even if the only thing being used from that song is the lyrics — and gives no protection to the creator of any additional original material.

When Coulton and his lawyers contacted Fox inquiring about their use of his music, they informed him that there is no legal obligation to pay him royalties, and, in a move that adds insult to injury, informed him that he should be happy for the exposure that he will gain from his music being on their show, which as Coulton points out on his blog, “they did not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of secret exposure.”

Fox may be in the legal right, but they are wrong from an ethical standpoint. Jonathan Coulton is the creator of the music to his cover of Baby Got Back. Period. At minimum, they should have contacted Coulton to inform him that his creative fruits are being used for their own commercial success and given him credit for his work in addition to Mix’s.

The purpose of copyright laws was to protect the work of an artist, but if they have created giant loopholes such as these, then they aren’t very good laws. They do not protect anyone except for the person that has the most money to hire the best attorneys.

Fortunately, Coulton is responding in the best way possible. In a completely snarky move, he re-released his single on iTunes as “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” and is donating all proceeds from the next month to the charities VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project.

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Good for him. But artists shouldn’t be afraid to create things that expand upon the work of others because they won’t get any sort of acknowledgement for their efforts from big corporations making a profit. Such a fear will stunt the cultural growth of society. This goes beyond songs about big butts — it’s a principle of encouraging common courtesy.

So, regardless of what ridiculous copyright loopholes there are, we should strive to create a society where artists are respected for their contributions of both original and expanding works. Giving credit where credit is due goes a long way.