Did “Glee” Rip Off Jonathan Coulton?

Jonathan Coulton is not a happy man.

Fox TV’s “Glee” returned from holiday hiatus and Coulton’s redux of Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, a slowed down acoustic version made it’s way into the episode. It’s close – very close (too close), to the original recording Coulton made in October of 2005 1.

Photo from Twitter: Paul and Storm

Coulton is less than pleased because it appears part (or maybe all) of the original recording was used without his permission or consent. He’s more than hinted about it on Twitter – and while #Glee is trending as I write this, the majority of twitter users mentioning the song appear completely unaware Coulton’s recording exists and was at the very least, the basis for the version that aired on Fox.


Apparently, it is customary for Fox to do whatever they please and perform any song they want. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki” was baked into a horrid medley featuring Sarah Jessica Parker and the band was completely unaware. They took it more as a compliment and didn’t complain. Which is what Glee expects Jonathan Coulton to do – take it as a compliment and free publicity.2 Kind of hard to do when they didn’t give him any credit or mention him whatsoever.

Paul Lamere of Music Machinery paired up the Glee and Coulton versions, and if you review what he presents in his post, you can understand Coulton’s frustration.

I decided to try a different test – using Shazam to check the Glee and Coulton versions. The Glee version clearly tags to “Baby Got Back” by Glee Cast, while Coulton’s 2005 recording doesn’t match anything. Which unveils a bigger travesty – why doesn’t Shazam pick this up as Jonathan Coulton?

From what I know about Jonathan Coulton, he’s not the type of musician to yell and scream about royalties (keep in mind he didn’t write the song – the issue is whether his sound recording was used). He’s self-promoted his music under Creative Commons, free of the corporate music world, and like Trent Reznor3, calls all the shots with his music. I imagine JoCo would simply like credit or to be asked to use his recording beforehand. Or worse – he wants to be on Glee (let’s hope not). This is a really tricky situation, given the song is a cover. Coulton obtained a license to cover the song4, so it appears he would have to prove his original recording was used without his permission. If Sir-Mix-A-Lot came forward and sued, that might have more teeth. I doubt Glee obtained a license to perform the song in any version.

At this point, JoCo hasn’t revealed his next move. I’m sure Fox’s “Glee” would pay whatever financial penalties come from any legal proceeding regarding the issue, just to make it go away. It would be nice to see the artist win once. Note Glee doesn’t do this to Prince. Because he would have a battalion of purple-suited lawyers paratroop onto the Glee set and put a stop to it.

Jonathan Coulton doesn’t have such recourse. He will have settle for what so many musicians and artists have accepted as the norm – to be screwed out of legitimate credit for their efforts. Or Jonathan Coulton the musician could do what he does best… write a scathing ditty about how Glee feeds on hard working musicians and artists and only leaves a hallow carcass behind with no regard for the writers, producers, musicians, artists, and performers, some of which see their creations as their “children”. That, I would really like to see and hear.

Way to rape modern music, Glee.

Update 1/26: Coulton did release a track addressing this incident. “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” – yes, he released the original track again, so it’s a cover of a cover of a cover. He’s donating the proceeds to two charities.

The track is available from the following digital markets:

iTunes: Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)
GooglePlay: Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)
AmazonMP3: Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)

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