What is copyrightable in a Song?

Coulton, Glee, and Copyright  January 28, 2013 – 07:57 pm
Lee Wilson

Is Jonathan Coulton right?  And does it matter?

Sir Mix-a-Lot released ‘Baby Got Back’ in 1992.  Jonathan Coulton covered ‘Baby Got Back’ in 2005 using a new (let us say, “original, ” both in the copyright sense of that word and in its ordinary but different everyday sense) arrangement.  The TV show Glee provoked a controversy recently by performing a version of ‘Baby Got Back’ that sounds nearly identical to Coulton’s version.

The various possible worlds of the Internet are a-flutter over the alleged appropriation of Coulton’s work by the producers of Glee.

Read summaries of the controversy here, here, and here.  The emerging consensus is that Glee may not have done anything wrong by the lights of copyright law, but stepped over the line ethically.

True?  Let’s walk through the law first, then some ethics.  There are few answers ahead, but perhaps some added ways of seeing through the mist.

As to the law:

What “rights” does Coulton have in his cover of ‘Baby Got Back’?  This depends on how Coulton went about producing the cover.

Possibility 1 is that Coulton did what he claims the producers of Glee should have done:  He went to Sir Mix-a-Lot and asked for permission.  The musicians would have worked out a deal on rights, royalties, and so forth.  In that deal they could have worked out whether Mix required that Coulton should have to assign Coulton’s publishing rights (rights in the newly-arranged version of the song) in the cover to Mix – a deal that Mix could easily have insisted on.  By contrast, Mix could have told Coulton to keep the publishing rights and instead pay Mix some amount of royalties – or nothing at all.  Again, all of the terms could have been worked out.  Had Coulton asked.

Source: madisonian.net

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