In many ways, Jonathan Coulton epitomizes the Internet content revolution. He’s a singer/songwriter who produces his songs independently and makes them available online for free under Creative Commons—meaning that people are free to post, distribute and use his songs however they like, as long as 1.) they don’t profit from it and 2.) they give him credit. This policy, rather than costing him sales as the mainstream music industry seems to think it would, has increased his popularity exponentially through the circulation of fan-made music videos of his songs.
With such an open policy regarding his work, who would try to cheat him? The mainstream music industry. Specifically, the television show Glee. One of Coulton’s songs is a cover of the 1986 Sir Mix-A-Lot hit, “Baby Got Back.” Only it’s more than a cover. Coulton (with full permission and a license from the Harry Fox Agency) wrote his own tune that turns the hard-driving rap into a cheery, mellow folk song. A lot of new creative work went into this version, which sets it apart from the original as distinctly Coulton’s.
So when the popular Fox show about a high school class of misfit singers released their new rendition of “Baby Got Back,” it was glaringly evident where it had come from. They sang Coulton’s tune verbatim, even including the lyric he changed from “Mix-A-Lot” to “Johnny C.” The problem? They didn’t ask “Johnny C” for permission. They didn’t credit him for the new tune. And they sold their version on iTunes.
But the Internet is a powerful place. And, for all of its flaws, it takes care of its own. Many prominent Internet content creators, from Wil Wheaton to the artists behind the webcomic “Cyanide and Happiness,” weighed in on the situation, publicly condemning Glee and showing their support for their comrade-in-arms. Other fans analyzed the two songs, creating note-for-note comparisons to show that they really were identical—and to argue that Glee may possibly even have used Coulton’s original instrumental recording in their rendition.
Through all of this, Glee issued no comment. When their legal department finally responded, they informed Mr. Coulton, privately, that since his song is a cover, they were well within their legal rights to take it and profit from it without any permission. They explained this has always been their policy with covered songs on the show, and that, as an Internet content creator, he should be grateful for the mainstream exposure of having his song featured on a major network television show. The only problem being that any “exposure” was negated by the fact that they didn’t credit him for the song. And though a simple credit or request for permission would have cost them nothing, they continued to refuse to do either, since legally they didn’t have to.
Left with no legal recourse, it appeared as though Coulton was beaten. But as a content creator, he had one more trick up his sleeve. Riding the wave of buzz created by the debacle, he released a new song: a cover of their cover (i.e. a song identical to his original version). Releasing it under the same Harry Fox license as his original, and promising to donate all profits for the first couple of months to charities (one of them, appropriately, the “VH1 Save the Music Foundation”), he sold it on iTunes, Amazon and other online music stores. The result? “Jonathan Coulton’s Baby Got Back, in the Style of Glee” has outsold all of the songs released by Glee this season. The Internet takes care of its own.