Jonny C. is most certainly in trouble – Jonathan Coulton vs. Glee

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting one of my first posts to be about this sort of thing. But something has taken my interest and needs addressing.

Many of you will be aware of the American TV programme Glee. I, myself, am a long-time viewer and enjoy the performances and slightly tongue-in-cheek moral messages that the earlier shows portrayed. I do feel that more recently they’ve lost some of the irony that made the original concept appealing, but that’s by-the-by. What cannot be denied about Glee is how lucrative it is as a product. Without fail, Glee versions of songs do extremely well in the pop charts – songs that are essentially covers performed by cast members of a teen sitcom. This is an unprecedented phenomenon. And, also, it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone directly.

Until now.

Some of you may be aware of the musician Jonathan Coulton. His most famous song, ‘Still Alive’, is the witty and poignant ending to Valve’s masterpiece video game ‘Portal’. Because of this he has a significant “nerd following”, and is something of an Internet hero. He also did a cover of ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-A-Lot, with a sort of Country vibe. Have a listen:

The cast of Glee have done a version of ‘Baby Got Back’ as well, soon to be shown in an upcoming episode. It’s a strangely familiar version.

Yeah – pretty much exactly the same. It’s important to note that Jonathan Coulton claims to have not been told about his version being used by Glee, until a few days before the video came out, and that no money has changed hands. Some are claiming that even the backing is the same and that the cast of Glee have just dubbed vocals over the top. What’s most hilarious is that at 2:16 they keep in the line ‘Jonny C.’s in trouble’, a line entirely distinctive to Coulton’s original, in the fact that it refers directly to him. And there’s no Glee character to whom that could possibly refer. It seems that Glee’s plagiarism is unashamed and bare-faced.

One of the main problems is that Glee have not directly broken any laws doing this. Coulton licences all his work under Creative Commons, which means that his own work can’t be used for commercial gain, but can be for non-commercial projects. However, this doesn’t include covers. Coulton is arguing that he wrote a melody for Sir Mix-A-Lot’s rap and, therefore, the lines are blurred as to how much of a cover it is, and how much is his own work. The point is, he’s the little guy and Glee is the corporation-backed big bully.

But what does this say about the Internet and intellectual property? Creative Commons is a great system for ordinary people to keep hold of what they’ve made, but it seems that once big business gets involved most of those agreements are thrown out of the window. One of the greatest things about the age of the Internet is how much it has boosted creativity and the sharing of original content: literally anyone can post a song to YouTube. Not that everyone should, but the point still stands. The Internet can be a huge leveller. A video by an unknown unsigned artists can get the same amount of views as one by a record-company backed artist. It might not necessarily (because marketing pushes etc. provide a lot of the view count for mainstream videos) but the potential for them to is there. In that environment, the big business artists have less clout – it’s user-moderated, and power is in the hands of the individual. We decide who should be put on pedestals, not corporations.
That’s what we like to tell ourselves. The fact is, power still very much lies in the hands of those with the capital. Lady Gaga would never have turned in to what she is without investment, neither would Justin Bieber (a YouTube sensation), and neither would PSY, of ‘Gangnam Style’ fame. Sure, a ‘Like’ or a retweet or whatever can really help small-time artists, but it’s still up to the mogul talent scouts to realise that all those collected ‘Likes’ are worthy of investment.

So, back to Jonathan Coulton. His work is proudly underground and left-of-centre; his appeal is limited and, like much of “nerd culture”, that limitation is something that is revelled in. Copyright law aside, one can’t help but think that an invasion in to this culture by big business and the pop mainstream is one of the major reasons for upset. Glee is touchstone for what is popular. They often record the most popular songs in hiatus so that they can have the most appeal, and sell the most tracks (a good example being their version of Gotye‘s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’). With Glee deciding that Jonathan Coulton is “in”, a lot of people will be upset by that. It smacks a little of ‘I liked it before it was cool’ (a viewpoint I’ll be discussing later).

But what should really be taken from this is the potential exploitation of little-known artists who, perhaps, don’t have strong legal backing. YouTube, and much of the internet, demands trust for information to be shared and if that trust is lost much of the artistic output we’ve witnessed in the early years of the Internet will be quashed. Decisions by big businesses, like the ripping off of Jonathan Coulton’s song by Glee, have the potential to break this trust and, perhaps, discourage musicians from sharing their work. This, indeed, would be a sad state of affairs.

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