By Alex Stedman
On January 18, 2012, indie singer/songwriter with a notable Internet following Jonathon Coulton tweeted a statement that left the Internet furious with a certain popular musical television show. He said that Fox’s “Glee” stole his 2006 arrangement for his cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and gave him no credit, and after listening to the noticeable similarities in Coulton’s and “Glee’s” versions, many fans contacted Fox executives and the media about the issue, garnering some media attention. “Glee” got back to Coulton when he threatened legal action, reportedly telling him that they are in their rights legally and he should be happy for the exposure.
However, Coulton is not the first victim of having an arrangement stolen by “Glee.” He just happens to be the first one with a significant enough Internet following. At least four other artists before him have seen their arrangements taken by “Glee” with no permission or credit and the issue has been largely underreported. It’s not as if the artists have been quiet about it; their cases apparently just did not meet the qualifications of newsworthiness in some people’s eyes.
Musician Greg Laswell was one of the more vocal artists’ who had his arrangement used without his permission. He created a slowed down, acoustic version of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and released it as a single in 2006. The song went on to appear in “The Hills,” “Damages” and “My Sister’s Keeper,” and was on the 2009 soundtrack of “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” So, when “Glee” took the arrangement nearly note-for-note for a 2011 episode and Laswell was vocal about it, it’s shocking that the media didn’t make a larger deal of it, other than a short article in “Billboard,” mostly talking about the process Laswell went through to create the song, and a few blogs mentioning the issue. Laswell is just now starting to get mentioned in articles pertaining to Coulton’s issue, but only as a small occasional side note.
“Of the ‘Glee’ version, I think they have enough talent over there that they shouldn’t need to go rummaging through other artists’ work,” Laswell told The Hollywood Reporter. “Public acknowledgement of their note-for-note rendition would have gone a long way.”
“Glee” has even gone so far as to take from the groups that they’re trying to portray: glee clubs. In 2005, an all-female, student-run University of Oregon a cappella group performed a rousing version of Usher’s “Yeah!” and posted it on YouTube in 2009. The video garnered a few thousands views on YouTube, but didn’t get “YouTube-famous” status recognition. Somehow, though, “Glee” found it, and had their own female group perform the exact same arrangement in a 2011 episode. It received some attention from local press, but didn’t go as far as Laswell in terms of getting a short article in “Billboard.” This theft seemed especially ironic, as a group of hardworking, young singers is the group that “Glee” is putting out there.
It definitely does not stop there. Nouvelle Vague, a French cover band, released a cover of Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” that had a very different arrangement from the original, as the aforementioned examples had as well. “Glee” had one of their characters perform the arrangement for a 2009 episode, and this, despite being very blatantly the same arrangement, received virtually no media attention at all. It was difficult to find even one article on the topic, and when one did come up, it was only a blog, or a website that placed both versions side-by-side so the listener could make up their own minds.
Another supposed arrangement theft that received almost no media attention was “Glee’s” version of “I Believe I Can Fly,” a mash-up that DJ Earworm, a YouTuber famous for making mash-ups of popular songs, said they stole from him. DJ Earworm did tweet about the incident when it happened, and brought it more to the forefront when the news of Coulton came about, but it was still difficult to find even one media article of the happening.
Why “Glee” would take arrangements from little-known artists is a difficult question. As Lawsell pointed out in his criticism of “Glee,” they have enough talent and money to make their own arrangements, or to hire someone to do that for them. It’s hard to say why they would take already-made arrangements without permission, but they say they are within their legal rights. And for a long time, they have gotten away with it.
It’s more of an issue of morals than of one of legality, and many unaware fans would probably be surprised that a show that claims to root for the underdog has been taking from the underdog long before Coulton. However, it’s hard to blame viewers for not knowing that, as it’s hard to find many articles on the topic. It’s one of the many jobs of journalism, especially entertainment journalism, to alert viewers to such questionable business practices. Musicians can only hope it will receive more attention thanks to Coulton.