'Glee' vs. Jonathan Coulton and 'Baby Got Back' update: If you can't beat 'em, outsell 'em
"Glee" may be learning this in the week after it became apparent that the FOX musical show had used Jonathan Coulton's arrangement of "Baby Got Back" for its "Sadie Hawkins" episode on Thursday (Jan. 24). While the song did air as scheduled and is now available for purchase on iTunes, the story isn't over.
That's because Coulton has an intense Internet-based following. And you anger an Internet following at your own peril.
The stealing/borrowing/honoring saga began on Friday, Jan. 18, when singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton noticed that "Glee" had recorded a version of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back." It sounded familiar. On further investigation, it became apparent that "Glee" was using Coulton's own folksy, ballad-like arrangement of the song.
Alas, Coulton's version was a cover. So even with a completely rewritten melodic tune and a changed lyric (both used in the "Glee" recording), Jonathan Coulton had little recourse, legally. Covering a cover doesn't require the same permissions as covering an original.
"Glee" is well aware of this and responded as such when Coulton and his lawyers lodged a complaint with the show. The show at least acknowledged the singer's complaint, even if it did so in the most dismissive manner it could. As Coulton posted on his blog:
"They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they're within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it's my version -- so you know, it's kind of SECRET exposure). While they appear not to be legally obligated to do any of these things, they did not apologize, offer to credit me, or offer to pay me, and indicated that this was their general policy in regards to covers of covers."
So that's it, right?
Nope. This is where the democratizing beauty of the Internet comes in. Between Coulton's publication of the issue (which has happened at least twice before -- to DJ Earworm with "I Believe I Can Fly" and Greg Laswell with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" -- according to Wired.com) and the furor expressed by the singer's many fans, a simple buh-bye from "Glee" could never be the end of it.
Fortunately for our feelings of rightness in a world gone wrong, Jonathan Coulton took the high road. A powerful entity like the legal department of FOX wasn't likely to budge because some mere artist wrote a letter. Coulton, therefore, hit them -- in the nicest way possible -- where it hurts: the recording sales.
On Saturday (Jan. 28), Coulton posted a single, "Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)" to iTunes, GooglePlay and AmazonMP3. He explained the track in his blog:
"It's a cover of Glee's cover of my cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's song, which is to say it's EXACTLY THE SAME as my original version."
Even better from a good-beats-evil standpoint is the fact that Coulton will be giving away the profits (after licensing and other fees) to charities -- the VHI Save the Music Foundation and The It Gets Better Project.
This has worked out pretty well. As of Monday morning (Jan. 28), the song ranked at 103 on the iTunes top singles chart. The highest "Glee" track on iTunes at that same time? "Locked Out of Heaven" at spot 124. The show's version of "Baby Got Back" isn't even in the top 200.
Instead of crying, Coulton gets to laugh all the way to the (charity) bank and is "Pleased that my for-charity single is doing so well!"
That's why you don't mess with the Internet and its powerful followings: The Internet will win. It's kind of awesome in this way.