Talented song humorist Jonathan Coulton is raising a fuss because the TV show Glee is using using his interpretation of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s anthemic “Baby Got Back”, including using his alteration to the lyrics, without any recognition to its source. They appear to have a legal right to do so, as by covering the song without reaching a special agreement, Coulton cedes any claim to copyright in his arrangement, and thus all Glee had to do was license the rights to the original song. (There’s a separate and vital question of whether Glee used any of the actual audio from Coulton’s version, which would seem to be his copyright, but that seems of lesser concern to Coulton.) So really, Coulton’s complaint is that they reused his material without proper concern for his ethical (rather than legal) rights and recognition of his contribution, a strong lack of respect
But if .
But as best as I can tell, Coulton is guilty of much the same thing in this matter. Please correct me if I’ve gotten facts wrong, but it seems to me that he never asked Mix-A-Lot’s permission to make this variant version of the song (certainly, his failure to get permission for copyright on his arrangement suggests that), but just exploited an ugly section of the copyright law called compulsory licensing, where the copyright owner of a song that has been commercially released is forced to license it to anyone else who would record it, under government-dictated commercial terms. In doing so, Coulton messed severely without Mix-A-Lot’s work of art (and it is a work of art; one might quite legitimately take it to task for its message, but it does a gorgeous job of delivering the message, with fine wordplay, good musical structure, and solid construction all around.) He strongly changed the tone of the work, presenting it as a ballad rather than a hip-hop work. He removed the artist’s name from the work, taking out a reference to Mix-A-Lot and replacing it with a representation of his own name (“Johnny C.”) It’s hard to say that he was showing any respect to the musician whose work he was covering.
I’m really not trying to come down too hard on Coulton (and in fact I will happily recommend to you a couple of his original works, the supervillain-themed “Skullcrusher Mountain” and the programming-oriented “Code Monkey”, both at heart songs about being capable of desire yet incompetent at expressing it, themes which I can recognize myself – particularly my past self – in), but really its to come down on compulsory licensing, which while it addresses the concern about monopoly in the player piano business (really, that’s what it was invented for), is ugly on all sorts of levels. It is based on an assumption that an artist can have no other appropriate protectiveness for his work than to make sure he makes money off of whatever is done to it… and it treats music licensing as something that requires government price controls, which I can see zero reason for (its not as though the right to be able to afford to cover The Devil Went Down To Georgia is as vital a thing in people’s lives as being able to get milk for one’s children, if I might compare it to something where there’s at least an argument to be made for government involvement in pricing.)
But the damages done by compulsory licensing are ones that primarily hit the artists, who are not the ones seen as having power in convincing Congress to change the laws. As such, I doubt we’ll see a change any time soon. But at least we can rest assured that the player piano business is protected!