< Jonathan Coulton's Cover of a Cover Gets Covered


Friday, February 01, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  And now, a content theft in plain sight that may be legal but it just feels wrong. In 2005, Jonathan Coulton quit his job writing software to devote himself to music. One of his first big successes was his own arrangement of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s pop rap classic, "Baby Got Back." Eight years later, his exact arrangement ended up uncredited on the FOX TV show, “Glee.” Coulton wasn’t compensated but he certainly was weirded out. Jonathan, welcome to On the Media.

JONATHAN COULTON:  Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  All right, the song is "Baby Got Back." We’re going to play the original Sir-Mix-A-Lot version.


So you like that song, but you could improve that.

JONATHAN COULTON:  [LAUGHS] Far be it for me to question Sir Mix-A-Lot’s take on that song, but I, I do like that song. I, I find it to be a message of empowerment about body image. So I did a style of that song that is slow and sensitive and folky, and extremely white.


BOB GARFIELD:  That is definitely white.

JONATHAN COULTON:  And I like to think there’s another level where I’m commenting a little bit on the history of white musicians appropriating music from black musicians and maybe not fully understanding what they're doing.

BOB GARFIELD:  So you dropped that cover years ago, and a few weeks ago this other version of “Baby Got Back” showed up on the Internet.


JONATHAN COULTON:  It was a note-for-note copy of my arrangement, and nobody had ever contacted me. And my first thought was, they can’t possibly be doing this, can they?

BOB GARFIELD:  How long did it take you to ask that same question of a lawyer?

JONATHAN COULTON:  The [LAUGHS] very first thing I did

was get in touch with my lawyers to find out what the legalities of the situation were. And, of course, at that time there was no real proof that it was definitely going to appear on the episode, because that was just a fan website. It, it appeared to be a leak of the song and not an official release.

BOB GARFIELD:  And FOX, of course, got wind of you looking into it and the song never appeared on “Glee,” right?

JONATHAN COULTON:  That is not what happened.


And it did, in fact, air on the episode, seemingly unchanged from the version that was leaked.

BOB GARFIELD:  And if you're looking for a smoking gun, you in your original version watermarked it in a way by using your name, Jonny C. And when it – the song shows up on “Glee,” lo and behold?

JONATHAN COULTON:  There it is. And what’s hilarious is that the character singing the song is named Adam.


So I’m not sure why it’s in there.

BOB GARFIELD:  When you put this up on the Internet, what were  the copyright conditions under which you posted?

JONATHAN COULTON:  Well, I released this song under the standard cover license that's available to anybody. I have copyright over the master recording, which is to say, the audio file itself. As far as the song goes, that part belongs to Sir Mix-A-Lot. And, actually, there’s a clause in the Copyright Code that covers this license that says the arrangement does not receive its own copyright protection. If you ask different lawyers, you get different answers about how true that is. We’re still sort of looking into that, and I don't fully understand all the implications, at this point.

BOB GARFIELD:  So could this be a case in which FOX, strictly speaking, didn't break any laws or steal any intellectual property but just showed a transcendent lack of self-respect?

JONATHAN COULTON:  [LAUGHS] Your words, not mine. The thing that my lawyers have become more interested in is the idea that they may have actually used my audio in the track. Some fans of mine have done some amateur sleuthing and uncovered a few artifacts that seem like they could not have gotten there other than by them using my tracks. If they did in fact use my audio, that is a pretty clear violation of copyright.

BOB GARFIELD:  FOX, the network, hasn’t commented publicly, but you did hear from the producers of the show?

JONATHAN COULTON:  I heard from someone on the music side of “Glee” who, a few hours before the show aired, called my agent and said, we’re within our rights to do this. We would hope that he would see it as a positive thing that he could capitalize on and, really, he should be grateful for the exposure that this is going to give him.

Now, of course, it's hard to claim that you are giving someone exposure when you have not mentioned their name anywhere.


The way I sort of read this is that this is a policy created by a pack of FOX attorneys. I don't have any quarrel with the creative people at “Glee” or with the “Glee” fans or anything. I suspect there are probably a lot of people on that side who wish that this had gone differently, as well.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, this bizarre little story has just the most  delicious twist. Tell me what you did.

JONATHAN COULTON:  So many of my fans have been expressing this sympathetic rage online, so I tried to think of a way to positively channel all of this energy. And what I did was I released a new version of my original [LAUGHS] cover version, of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song as a single on iTunes. I called it “Baby Got Back in the Style of Glee.” And –


- it is exactly the same recording as my original recording. And from now until the end of February, all the profits I will donate to the It Gets Better Project and the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, two causes that are pretty closely associated with the message of “Glee” and with the fans who enjoy it.

BOB GARFIELD:  And how’s it selling?

JONATHAN COULTON:  Much to my surprise and delight, I believe it actually cracked the top 100 selling songs on iTunes, which is amazing and hilarious.

BOB GARFIELD:  Jonathan, thank you very much.



BOB GARFIELD:  Jonathan Coulton is a musician and an involuntary contributor to the FOX program, “Glee.” We asked FOX for comment but the network declined.