I'm just putting this up on the blog for reference as one of any number of similar IP problems that crop up all the time. Apparently, the show Glee on Fox has recorded a Jonathan Coulton cover of Sir MixaLot's "Baby Got Back" and is selling the song on iTunes. The ensuing kerfuffle has brought up the issue of Creative Commons and what, exactly, is a do and a don't in that arena. Coulton, of course, fully acknowledges that the song is a cover, but his contribution to the song includes a "distinctive tune," new orchestration, and some changed words (not too many). The Glee version uses that same tune and orchestration.

By many people's shorthand view of copyright, it seems obvious that Glee (ultimately Fox) is doing something "wrong" here because the orchestration is so close to Coulton's that the artist even speculates that they just took his actual recording and and put the cast's voices over it. And it may well be (I've only listened to the two versions once, but it sure sounds like that's the case). But it brings up so many cases that don't seem so obvious and forces us to ask, "Where do we draw that line?" Or, even, "Why should we draw a line?" It comes back to both the capitalist version of information production (who profits from the production and transmission of this information?) and the romantic author (it's MY orchestration).

This isn't really super insightful or anything. These discussions just make me think of the classical European artists of earlier centuries where this wasn't even an issue. Heck, Handel was well known for reworking his own material, not to mention how others of those artists "plagiarized" (some might say borrowed from or were inspired by) each other's work.
1/19/2013 03:10:03 pm

it's interesting to me that absolutely no one is considering what Sir Mix-a-Lot thinks of this...yes, Coulton acquired proper licensing from the Agency for his recording, but notably no one is asking Sir Mix-a-Lot what he thinks of a bunch of faux-nerdy white kids doing ~ironic~ acoustic covers of his smash hit rap song that was clearly made for a black audience (or did they conveniently forget the opening skit explicitly making fun of white girls?). No one is critiquing Coulton's cover or Glee's rendition of it as a surprising and offensive appropriation, which is basically what it is--the lyrics literally read "gimme a sista, i can't resist her/red beans and rice didn't miss her."

To me this points to a larger issue within the dominant conversation on cultural appropriation, namely that elements of black american culture(s) seem to be permanently up for grabs in 'the public's' eyes, and totally available as an endless source of belittling jokes (which both Coulton's cover & Glee's rendition are playing on). It's this narrative that renders Sir Mix-a-Lot's thoughts on the matter irrelevant.

Additionally, re: copyright infringement issues, I think this case also is indicative of the shortcomings of legal/cultural understandings of authorship & art (particularly because we're talking about an original black artist performing in a genre that's continually insulted & seen as garbage). Legally, Glee is answerable to Coulton and not Sir Mix-a-Lot, despite the fact that this is all based on Sir Mix-a-Lot's work; to me this seems very similar to last week's conversation on respectful use--someone should have consulted Sir Mix-a-Lot a long time ago.

1/21/2013 07:57:06 am

Indeed, as I was reading the article I did wonder what Sir Mix-a-Lot thought about this whole business. And now while reading Coombe's work and then coming back to this post, I couldn't help but think about karaoke and the "play" associated with music of all sorts, but particularly rap. By "play" I mean changing lyrics or doing performative acts designed to mock the song/artist/audience/performer in some way, even as the performer professes to "love" the song and the genre (so many problems in there I can't even begin to articulate).

I'm still processing the karaoke stuff, but definitely appreciate this convo with regard to authorship and legality.


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