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ange on 05/06/2013 at 08:29PM

Hollywood Culture vs. Internet Culture: Jonathan Coulton Joins the Glee Club

The TV Show Glee is about a cute group of high school underdogs, who sing sparkly cover songs while dancing through the cafeteria.

But there's another Glee club forming, whose members have no say in joining. They're a ragtag group of underdog musicians who've found their arrangements of cover songs appearing in the hit show without their permission or credit of any kind. One member of this club is independent musician Jonathan Coulton. He's is the Internet's take on a rock star. He was also a recent judge of our Birthday Song contest, and he's currently hosting a highly successful Code Monkey comic book Kickstarter campaign.

For this May's edition of The Organist podcast from Believer Magazine & KCRW, I've produced a story about what's become known as #backgate. It begins about 8 minutes into the program, wedged between James Franco (!) and Tao Lin (!).

Here's the transcript of Coulton telling his story as told for the radio story, and edited for length and readability.

When I first left my day job to pursue music full time, I began a project called Thing a Week where I would release a new song every Friday. And in the first four weeks I used up every idea I had in my head. Week five, out of desperation, I decided to do a cover song, and the cover song I chose was Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back."

A lot of people say oh that's just a misogynistic goofball rap song, but I actually think there's quite a bit more to unpack there. When I did the cover I decided it would be sort of a sensitive, folkie, white guy version. Maybe referencing the historical precedent of white artists stealing music from black culture and not really understanding it as they were doing it.

I enjoy covers that change the nature of the song. It's more interesting when you can find a different take on the song, something that was harder to see the first time around. My intent in doing that song is that it's not Sir Mix-A-Lot who is the clown, it's that I am the clown. I am the guy who doesn't get it. And that song, much to my surprise, overnight became an often forwarded link, and a lot of people came to my website to hear it.

So then 8 years later, I am checking my Twitter feed in the morning, as I usually do, to see what people are saying about me. And somebody said, "Hey congratulations, I hear they're using your version of 'Baby Got Back' on Glee." That's great news. And there was a link to a video and the song that played was almost note for note my version of "Baby Got Back," although with different singers. 

And it was so startling, and it sounded so much like my version, that I was… I was shocked. I was shocked and stunned because no one had contacted me. The first thing I did was contact my lawyers, and the second thing was go to Twitter and complain about it.

There's the injustice of them essentially using my work and passing it off as their own. I think the the thing that offends me more is just the stupidity of their policy. Clearly a group of people have thought about the best way to approach this kind of thing, and have determined that this is the best way. To do it in secret and without crediting anybody and without acknowledging that they're using someone else's idea. Because they've done it to other artists in the past and it played out the same way.

Greg Laswell is another artist who this has happened to. He recorded a cover of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. It takes this '80s pop song that we all remember as this fun goofy romp through the '80s, and just by resetting it, makes it a really poignant emotional song. And Glee used exactly that arrangement.

Another example is Petra Hayden had an a cappella version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" which was used in the very first episode of Glee.

The interesting thing is that on the Internet we understand that when you barrow someone's idea it's important to give that person credit. It's just a natural thing we do here on the internet. But in Hollywood it doesn't work that way. They don't think that way.

There's a compulsory license in the US copyright code, where it allows any artist to do a new arrangement of an existing song without having to seek permission, provided they alert the owner of that song and pay them a royalty. 

I bought that license because I was covering Sir Mix-A-Lot's song. I paid Sir Mix-A-Lot royalties on sales of that song. The loophole - it's not really a loophole, it's just part of the copyright code - section 115 of the copyright code says that in exchange for this being an easy license to get, the arrangement itself is not protected. 

So it is assumed that in doing this that you are no creating a new derivative work that has its own copyright. You're not creating any new intellectual property. Because if that happened then it would be a situation where it's a shared authorship. Where Mix-A-Lot would own part of it, and I would own part of it. And there's no reason why the US Copyright Code would want me to force Mix-A-Lot to enter into a shared intellectual property situation with me. So the arrangement doesn't belong to anybody.

As a sort of protest, and as an attempt to turn all these negative feelings that I was having into something positive, I took my original recording of "Baby Got Back," made a copy of it, renamed it "Baby Got Back in the Style of Glee," and posted it on iTunes as a single. And let everybody know that I was going to give all proceeds from that track through the end of February to the It Gets Better Foundation and to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, two causes that I think are closely alleigned with Glee and the fans who love it.

Immediately that song started climbing the charts in iTunes, and much to my delight, within a day or two, had passed the Glee version. You know, it's probably my most successful single on iTunes ever.

I won't name names, but somebody affiliated with Glee was quoted as saying at a music conference he's surprised artists are even paid to have their music placed in TV shows. And in fact he thinks the artists should be paying the TV shows. 

And to me it points to a kind of arrogance that Hollywood has about how important their piece of the entertainment puzzle is. And it is just a piece. Increasingly the world of entertainment that we consume is on the Internet.

Of course the Internet delights in metatextual stuff. When I do a cover of "Baby Got Back" that's one level. And then when Glee does their secret cover of my cover, that's another level. And then when I do a cover of their cover of my cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot, that's another level. And then when Hodgemen, when John Hodgemen, in order to honor me, does his own cover of my cover of their cover of my cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot's song… we go a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole, and the joke becomes a little bit harder to explain. And I think that's the very essence of Internet culture. I'm always delighted when that sort of thing happens, because it's fun to ride the rabbit hole all the way down.


A longer version of this story appeared earlier this year during a special Radio Passover episode of Radio Free Culture with my Grandma Phyllis. Subscribe to the Radio Free Culture podcast, and check out the archives

This series is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.



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