Burning Question

Did Glee rip off Jonathan Coulton's 'Baby Got Back' cover?

The show's saccharine version of Sir Mix-A-Lot's hit sounds awfully familiar. And Coulton is fighting back

Up above is a clip from a recent episode of Glee called "Sadie Hawkins," in which the cast performs a folksy, sugary rendition of Sir Mix-A-Lot's decidedly not-for-polite-company 1992 hit "Baby Got Back."

Now, listen to the cover below of the same song from a YouTube artist named Jonathan Coulton. His version of the classic rap track was uploaded on Jan. 12, 2009:

Sound familiar? Coulton and scores of folks across the internet sure think so, alleging that the Fox show's creators stole the melody and stylings from Coulton's cover without permission. Here's what Coulton writes at his blog:

I have some questions about how IP [intellectual property] works in terms of this song. It's a cover of a Sir Mix-A-Lot song obviously, but I wrote a new melody for it, which this recording uses. 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.

A complicating factor is that, to my ears, it sounds like it actually uses the audio from my recording — not the vocals obviously, but the instruments sound EXTREMELY similar. [Jonathan Coulton]

The show's producers, who haven't spoken publicly about this flap, reportedly told Coulton that using his version is well within their legal rights. They told me "I should be happy for the exposure," writes Coulton, "even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it's my version."

This isn't the first time Glee has been accused of "borrowing" from a YouTube singer's cover of a popular track. According to Wired, singer/songwriter Greg Laswell said his version of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" was similarly featured on the show without his permission. In that same vein, the show's rendition of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" is strikingly similar to this version by mash-up artist DJ Earworm.

While getting a song featured on Glee can do wonders for an artist's career, the show has had something of a contentious relationship with songwriters. In 2010, Glee creator Ryan Murphy had a famous spat with the band the Kings of Leon, and called them "self-centered assholes" for refusing to grant the show rights to "Use Somebody." (Murphy has since apologized.) 

Coulton's lawyers say it's highly unlikely their client has claims to a copyright of the Sir Mix-A-Lot cover. Still, Coulton has released his version on iTunes, GooglePlay, and Amazon for his supporters to purchase, and says he will donate all the proceedings from the sales made through February to two charities: The VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project, which, he says, are "two great causes that are directly related to the Glee brand." 

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