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Why "Glee" Did Not Rip Off Jonathan Coulton

His fans may be outraged, but the show doesn’t owe him anything for using his arrangement of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Mike Lawrie / Getty Images

Fans of the singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton are up in arms because his arrangement of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” will be used in a forthcoming episode of Glee.

Here’s the original version of the song, in case you somehow have never heard it:

…and here is Coulton’s version, recorded in 2005 as part of his “Thing A Week” project.

Here’s the version that was recorded for Glee:

It is very obvious that Glee used Coulton’s arrangement of “Baby Got Back.” The guitar part and general tone is identical, and they even carried over his alteration of one line to refer to “Johnny C.” rather than Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Coulton was not pleased.

Hey look, @GLEEonFOX ripped off my cover of Baby Got Back: http://t.co/7PMRY0r3. Never even contacted me. Classy.

— Jonathan Coulton (@jonathancoulton)

Hey look, @GLEEonFOX ripped off my cover of Baby Got Back: http://t.co/7PMRY0r3. Never even contacted me. Classy.— Jonathan Coulton

It is understandable that Coulton would be annoyed, but the producers of Glee don’t actually owe him anything. According to copyright law, alternate arrangements of songs are “derivative works,” and arrangers can only claim a copyright when the songwriter has granted that privilege to them. Sir Mix-a-Lot is the sole songwriter of “Baby Got Back,” so only he is obligated to receive credit and payment for the use of the song in the show. Though Coulton’s version includes elements that he wrote himself, he cannot claim a songwriting credit for those contributions, including that “Johnny C.” line, which was almost certainly included in the Glee version as their way of giving the singer some credit.

This would be a bit different if the show had used Coulton’s recording. In that case, the recording would be licensed and Coulton would receive performance royalties, while Sir Mix-a-Lot would get the royalties for songwriting.

So, really, there’s no reason to get mad at Glee about this, though it may seem unfair at first glance. If Coulton fans want the singer to get paid big Glee bucks, they should channel their energy into lobbying the show’s producers to do a version of his viral hit “Skullcrusher Mountain” in a future episode.

Seriously, wouldn’t that just be delightful?

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