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Copy That: Did “Glee” Pilfer Jonathan Coulton’s “Baby Got Back”?

jonathancoultongleebackPOSTThere are your garden variety deja vu moments, and then there are the You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. moments when you experience something and it seems too familiar, blatantly familiar.

So, Glee did a folky cover of the Sir Mix-a-Lot classic “Baby Got Back,” and anyone familiar with Jonathan Coulton immediately had a You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. moment.

Here’s Jonathan’s version, released in 2005 as part of his Thing a Week project, posted October 15th, 2005 with a blurb on Boing Boing the next day:

And for good measure, a live version with Paul and Storm as, pardon the expression, backing vocals:

Here’s the Glee version, from this season:

Play them back-to-back and see what you think. Keep in mind that Jonathan’s version featured his own melody along with Sir Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics, and when you listen to the Glee version, that melody is… well, you compare and see. (And there’s the “Jonny C” reference near the end that magically ended up in the Glee version. Hmm. Double hmm.) Now, neither Jonathan nor Glee wrote the original “Baby Got Back,” but the melody on Jonathan’s version is his, and the melody for Glee‘s version seems to be, um, Jonathan’s, so, well, I’m not going to trot out my law degree and reactivate my bar membership for this post, but you be the judge. Jonathan’s already tweeted his opinion, and, yeah, if I were him, I’d feel ripped off, too.


  1. Alexa says:

    Fellow ex-lawyer, perhaps you know better than me: Do covers/new arrangements fall under compulsory license? Since the melody is original to JoCo and therefore his copyright, at the very least he should get paid for that. To Harry Fox!

  2. LameDuck says:

    Would the audio track actually be considered a cover? It’s after all a unique arrangement, it’s only the lyrics which are obviously a copy of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s original.
    The audio track might therefore be considered covered by copyright.

  3. Drew says:

    Guys, Jonathan himself said that Creative Commons doesn’t apply because it’s a cover song. Crediting people in the “composer” tag of a sound file isn’t “hiding” it and it isn’t about “mending the damage,” it’s about providing proper attribution.

    I’m going to leave this here:

    Regarding a previous cover “arrangement” used by Glee. Seems like it’s possible for Jonathan to get credit if he wants it.

  4. Drew, credit in the metadata would be a start, but hiding credit in a place that most users wouldn’t know to look does little the mend the damage. It’s a Non-Commercial CC license, anyway, so even with credit they are not legally allowed to use it in a commercial product.

  5. Drew says:

    Jonathan himself pointed out that his CC license may not apply in this instance. The legality of this is pretty fuzzy as it’s already a cover. Are you a copyright lawyer?

    Also, there’s pretty much no proof that Glee is actually using his audio track. If they are, that’s reprehensible, but I want to make things clear: the only thing we can actually be sure of at this point is that Glee covered Jonathan’s cover without notifying him.

  6. mistletoe says:

    This is super shitty, but a tiny part of me is proud that Coulton is in a position to be ripped off, if that makes any sense. He deserves more attention, just not like this.

    Didn’t really need another reason not to like Glee, though.

  7. LameDuck says:

    @Drew: “Has anyone purchased the track on iTunes to see if he’s credited in the metadata?”

    His license clearly states non-commercial use only, and since they did not get his explicit permission to use the song in the show or sell it on iTunes this is irrelevant. They took his song, seemingly mixed in their own vocals straight over his karaoke track, and started selling this “new” version, which is also supposed to be aired on TV.

  8. Liz says:

    They also jacked Divisi’s arrangement of “Low” without crediting. Probably fair use, but shitty ethics.

  9. Brett says:

    Just an FYI, the line “Johnny C’s in trouble” is sung in his live version. So while it’s a shout out to him, it’s not a very clever one.

  10. Drew says:

    Has anyone purchased the track on iTunes to see if he’s credited in the metadata?

  11. Drew says:

    Question: if the song hasn’t been officially released or used, what’s the basis for the claim of no attribution? Some 16-year-old kid got access to the sound file and spoiled it on YouTube. Those videos never give attribution to anyone.

    • Tim says:

      I saw other commenters mentioning that it is already available on iTunes in other regions. Also, because of the terms of the CC license JoCo uses for his work, they would have needed to contact him well in advance to pay for using his song if they’re just about to air the episode that features the song.

  12. James Gilliland says:

    Johnny C reference is around 2:16 in glee video.

  13. Brett Glass says:

    It’s pretty clear: the original lyrics aren’t Jonathan’s, but everything else in the Glee version (melody, instrumental backing track, unique alterations to the lyrics) are his. And while he published the track under a Creative Commons license (which, IMHO, gives away too many rights), he did use a version of the license that requires attribution and allows only non-commercial use. Fox infringed.

  14. azture says:

    I know Wikipedia isn’t exactly a cite-able source, but the Glee songs wiki lists Laswell and Vague for “Girls just wanna have fun” and “dancing with myself” respectively. Were they never properly credited?

  15. Mike says:

    I’m pretty sure just being on the show, which is a commercial product, would have violated anyway, right? Maybe they found out it was a CC/Copyleft license and didn’t do the research to find they couldn’t use it? It just still blows my mind that they’d be dumb enough to do this. They must figure the cost of litigating for him (or anyone else they may or may not steal from) is too much to make it worth it.

  16. Amanda says:

    Glee has also been accused of using choreography without credit, when they covered the Scissor Sisters song “Let’s Have a Kiki.” The choreographer felt he deserved credit, since they used so much of his original material, but Glee claimed fair use.

  17. smartbunny says:

    The “Johnny C” line is TOO MUCH. It’s an over the top rip-off.

  18. Tim says:

    I just realized that, on top of just being generally shady and disgusting, if this is being sold on iTunes, it’s also violating JoCo’s Creative Commons license on his music.

  19. kittnen says:

    I retract my original comment asking if he had authorized it (the Tweet bit hadn’t been posted yet). Yeah, complete BS.

  20. Mike says:

    So, I guess I’m back to, “How many people at the production company would have to be just absolutely awful at their jobs to let something like this through?”

    The answer, apparently, is enough.

  21. Ryan says:

    Yeah, Glee has done this a lot before, leading people to believe that they came up with new arrangements of songs that they took from covers and acoustic versions. Most notably “Over the Rainbow” and “Shake it Out.”

  22. Lauren says:

    Watch this:

    then go watch Finn singing the same. damn. thing.

  23. valerie2776 says:

    yep, he released the source tracks for Baby Got Back (plus a bunch of other songs) on “JoCo Looks Back”

  24. Mike says:

    Never-mind, that YouTube doubler site was really convincing. If it is a sound-alike, those engineers would have had to go crazy matching the tones of all the instruments like that. Holy crap.

    Damn. JC’s got a settlement check coming his way.

  25. Not sure if they used it, but JoCo did release a karaoke version of his arrangement (under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, mind you):

  26. Brett Glass says:

    Yes, Jonathan did release two vocal-less versions. One was a Karaoke track, in which the lead vocals were omitted. Another was on a USB memory stick which he sold at performances.

  27. Joyce says:

    Ryan, the “Johnny C” line is at about 2.20 in the Glee video.

  28. Arby says:


    Glee’s reference to Johnny C starts at 2:16 of the last youtube video posted above.

    How brazen.

  29. Ariel says:

    The Johnny C bit is at the 2:16 or 2:17 point of the song

  30. Mike says:

    It’d be weird if they used his actual recording. Did he release a vocal-less version? Then I could see it. If not, where did they get the track stems? It’s not super hard to make a soundalike track these days (see: Guitar Hero 1 through whenever they started paying for the actual recordings). But, really, say they did use his actual recording, how many people at the production company would have to be just absolutely awful at their jobs to let something like this through? JC isn’t a superstar, but he’s certainly enough of a known quantity that any lawyer/music supervisor would have to be a complete idiot to let this happen.

    • Tim says:

      JoCo sells vocal-less karaoke tracks of almost all his songs for $1 each. I know for a fact that Baby Got Back is available, as I own it.

  31. Ian says:

    @Ryan: At 2:17 here:

    “Johnny C’s in trouble.”

    The original was “Mix-a-lot’s in trouble,” but JoCo changed it for his arrangement.

  32. 2:17: “Jonny C’s in trouble”

  33. Ryan says:

    Where is the “Johnny C” reference in the Glee video?
    I’ve listened a few times and can’t hear it.

  34. RogerX says:

    Er, they didn’t cover his cover. They TOOK HIS TRACK and mixed new vocals. The same guitar, the same background duck quack, beat for beat, measure for measure. It’s not a “copy of his arrangement,” it’s an uncredited, unauthorized USE OF HIS RECORDING in a track they offered for commercial sale. This is not only wrong, unethical, and otherwise douchey… it’s flat-out illegal.

  35. The Glee version is listed in several sources to be appearing in next week’s episode, “Sadie Hawkins.” And the song has apparently been released in some non-U.S. territories credited to “Glee Cast” and available on iTunes, like in Sweden:

  36. Mike says:

    I’m not positive, but I believe he would have ownership of the arrangement, which is a separate copyrightable work.

  37. Nina says:

    This isn’t the first time they’ve ripped off an artists’ cover of a song. See Greg Laswell’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and Nouvelle Vague’s “Dancing With Myself” — Glee ripped off the musical arrangement for those songs too! D:<

  38. Matt says:

    To my knowledge, via twitter and his website, they did not have permission to use his melody, etc. On, he mentions that even though he does not own rights to the song “Baby Got Back” there are rights he has to his version. Now, JoCo does say that this being found on an Unofficial Glee Wiki page there’s no direct proof, as of right now, that the song is officially the work of Glee and was used in broadcast and distributed. If it was official, then they are violating JoCo’s melodic ownership. But, nothing will happen until there is proof of both Glee using this officially and the rules regarding use of JoCo’s licensed melody in use.

  39. Josh says:

    Here’s the YouTubeDoubler link that Paul and Storm posted. As long as you get it synced right at the start(reload a couple times if not) the entire song is basically in 2 part harmony.

  40. As I wrote, while neither party wrote the original, it’s an entirely different melody and arrangement, and Jonathan created that part. Apart from legal questions, there’s just a matter of credit where credit’s due.

  41. Ahab says:

    “Johnny C” isn’t Sir Mix-A-Lot’s lyric, and neither is the melody.

  42. Ahab says:

    Guys, did you even bother to click the link to JoCo’s tweet on the issue? He clearly stated that they didn’t contact him, so how could they have gotten his permission?

    Plus, he suspects they used his actual recording, rather than covering the instrumentals themselves:

  43. Josh says:

    Oh well, that bit about his tweet wasn’t there until a minute ago.

    He has every right to be ticked off, but it’s still not his song.

  44. Tim says:

    Given that JoCo tweeted that Glee “Never even contacted me,” I’d say they didn’t get his permission. Just a guess.

  45. Josh says:

    I know it’s cool to hate Glee (trust me, it’s a terrible show), and they did copy Coulton’s cover, but in the end, it’s a cover of a cover. I love Jonathan Coulton as much as the next guy, but he doesn’t own anything about Baby Got Back.

    Also, due to the “Johnny C” reference, I’m thinking they got the permission of both Sir Mix A Lot AND Coulton.

  46. Andrew says:

    *sniff sniff* I smell a lawsuit.

  47. kittnen says:

    It’s obviously his, but do we know for a fact that JoCo didn’t authorize the usage of his version of the song?