Broken Copyright: Jonathan Coulton Is Actually Infringing Copyright, But Glee Is Not
from the how-messed-up-is-our-system dept
Want to know just how messed up our copyright system is, and just how out of sync it is with the way people feel about copyright and what makes sense? Just know this: between Jonathan Coulton and Fox, concerning the dispute over Fox’s Glee using Coulton’s rendition of Baby Got Back on their show — you could make an argument that Coulton may have actually exposed himself to more copyright infringement problems than Fox did.
Allow me to explain. When the whole thing first broke, we thought that Coulton took the right approach in basically just telling his fans about it. Then, when we heard that he was exploring legal issues with his lawyers, that actually seemed like the wrong approach to take, even if he was upset about things. According to various reports, right before the show aired, Fox finally reached out to him and explained that what they did was perfectly legal (probably true) and that Coulton should be happy for the exposure. Coulton’s response was quite reasonable — asking if that meant Fox would be crediting him. Since the answer was no, the promise of exposure rings a bit hollow.
That said, it’s not entirely hollow — because of Coulton’s ability to whip up (completely reasonable) righteous indignation about this from his fans via social media. As he told Mashable in the link above:
“They were right. I did get exposure, but it didn’t come from anything they did. It was sympathetic outrage on Twitter, and bloggers and journalists talking about how crazy it was.”
[….] “Sometimes I forget that Twitter is something beyond just being snarky at the Oscars. All of a sudden something happens and you remember that this is an amazing, powerful tool.” Coulton says. “My fans have a keen sense of justice, and this idea that we should be attributed for our work. People who are of the Internet realize that attribution is what we trade on.”
And, of course, he’s taken it a step further as well, re-releasing his original song on iTunes, but calling it Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee) and promising to donate the proceeds to two charities associated with Glee: The VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project. Song sales are doing well, with Coulton’s version climbing the charts, while the official Glee version of the song is riddled with one star reviews from his supportive fans (even though he’s not encouraging people to do this) and is nowhere to be found on the charts.
Still, what strikes me as perhaps most interesting about all of this is that as you explore the legal issues, it is entirely possible to come out with an argument that says that if anyone is infringing on copyright here… it’s Jonathan Coulton. Let me be clear on this: I am not saying that anyone has directly accused him of this, nor am I suggesting (in any way) that he should be accused of this. I’m just showing how misaligned the law is with what most people think of as a sensible regime today. So why might Coulton be in trouble? As he’s noted repeatedly, he paid the compulsory license to cover the song via the Harry Fox Agency. Doing so means that he agreed (pdf) to abide by Section 115 of the Copyright Act.
What’s that? Well, check it out here. Here’s the relevant part for our discussion:
A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work, and shall not be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title, except with the express consent of the copyright owner.
Previously, we and many others had suggested that the changes that what Coulton had made could possibly be protected as unique creative works. However, he more or less gave up that claim when he used the statutory license, rather than doing a direct deal with Sir Mix A Lot, or whoever else holds the rights on the song. That also means, however, that Coulton did not live up to Section 115 and his cover, in all likelihood, violates the original copyrights, because the license he got does not cover the very different arrangement and melody he created.
That is, by any normal measure, insane. But that’s the law. This whole situation has (ridiculously) exposed Jonathan Coulton as a “pirate” and Fox as being perfectly within the law. And that just seems silly.