Exhibit A: Jonathan Coulton’s cover of “Baby Got Back,” released 8/14/2005.
Exhibit B: Glee’s cover of “Baby Got Back,” due to air on 1/24/2013
There’s (understandably) a lot of anger on the internet about this, and it’s clear that if this is an actual recording from Glee, that they’ve used Jonathan’s music (maybe even sampled it) without his permission.
I’m just as pissed as everyone else about what looks like a blatant knockoff of Jonathan’s music, it feels to me like a powerful network is bullying an independent musician. But I also want to be careful not to overreact. My friend Kris Straub wrote, “We have to end this idea that if it’s on the internet, it’s fair game for anyone to take and use. Maybe this is the event to do it.” But idea that things on the internet are free to take and use is very important to me - that’s how Jonathan was able to make his remix of the original Sir Mix-a-Lot song. The key distinction here lies in the word “use.”
I posted about this a little bit back when a famous designer ripped off my friends, and Austin Kleon (author of Steal like an Artist) wrote to say, “Imitation is not flattery. Tranformation is flattery.” I think it’s clear that “using” things on the internet is fine if you’re transforming them, and less fine if you’re copying them. Jonathan transformed Sir Mix-a-Lot; FOX imitated Jonathan. FOX’s imitation is even less fine than usual because they’re making a profit and more powerful than Jonathan.
It’s also clear to me that we (i.e. the internet) have a lot of proven options for responding to this kind of bullying.
Let’s keep fighting the good fight, and stand up for our friends when they get bullied. But let’s also remember the values that got us where we are, and make sure we are free to share our work and remix others’ work without fear.
Let the shit-stirring begin.
EDIT: I’ve already got a reply back from FOX, you can see that they forwarded my email around to a bunch of people and said, “We have no comment.” See, this is fun!
EDIT II: Kris Straub writes, “This has been proven as an official FOX recording, by the way. It’s not a fan effort or a mistake. It was immediately yanked from the American iTunes store after the furor began on Twitter, but it is still visible on the Swedish iTunes store.”
EDIT III: Thanks to endofunctor for sending me some more info on Jonathan’s version of Baby Got Back. Jonathan Coulton writes: “Back when I released it, I bought the statutory license to distribute my version of this song through Harry Fox. Creative Commons doesn’t come into play because it’s a cover song, and anyway my CC license specifies Non-Commercial.”
EDIT IV: The Voyage Home: Kirk Hamilton’s got the story at Kotaku.