Copyright, plagiarism and the Internet

My latest Guardian column is "Internet copyright law has to have public support if it's going to work," and it goes into the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism, and tries to understand why so many people got upset at Glee's legal ripoff of a Jonathan Coulton song:

Copyright experts were quick to explain that Fox's plagiarism was legal – the same rules that allowed Coulton to record his cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's original "Baby Got Back" also allow Fox to produce a sound-alike version. But it's shoddy, because it is, at heart, a lie.

(Coulton got his own back on Fox: he rereleased his own "Baby Got Back" and billed it as a cover of the Glee version, with proceeds to charity – it climbed the iTunes chart while the Fox version was clobbered by angry Coulton fans who gave it one-star reviews)

Why does Fox's sin stick in the internet's craw? I think it's because Fox hasn't just wronged Coulton: they've wronged the public. We have been misled about the origin of a product we're being asked to purchase.

This is different from, say, a fake designer handbag that's offered as a cheap knockoff, where there's no intent to fool the purchaser, who understands that a 99% discount on a Vuitton bag means that it's really a "Vuitton" bag.

This kind of plagiarism is more like selling horsemeat labelled as beef burgers. Horsemeat can be perfectly harmless, and many people happily eat it, but when you buy beef burgers, you expect that you're getting what you paid for.

Internet copyright law has to have public support if it's going to work


  1. One thing I’m unclear on: there seems to be pretty strong evidence that Fox is using Coulton’s actual backing tracks, right? The lyrics and arrangement may be fair game, but isn’t the performance itself protected?

      1. I believe that is a different thing. He made his sheet music (the arrangement), but that is different than the performance.

  2. “Why does Fox’s sin stick in the internet’s craw? I think it’s because Fox hasn’t just wronged Coulton: they’ve wronged the public. We have been misled about the origin of a product we’re being asked to purchase.”

    Perhaps that’s part of it, but a bigger factor is that the Internet likes Jonathan Coulton. He’s one of us (part of the hive-mind), he makes clever, funny songs and then lets us have them for free. Nobody likes FOX. They’re a big corporate entity. Feelings range from neutral to hatred, but no one actually likes them.

    1. Not only does FOX not have people’s goodwill, they’re a representative of a large corporate-media landscape which is essentially engaged in a “police action” against fair use, and which is fairly ruthless at demanding their propers when it comes to derivative works.

      To re-use something from the Internet and present it as their own, and then claim it is within their rights as fair-use, strikes us as incredibly disingenuous, given who is saying it and that they aim to make money from it. Regardless of FOX’s previous record in the matter, their association with show business — an industry notorious for their antagonism against individual creative reinterpretations — gives us reason to regard this particular episode of their behaviour with the highest contempt.

    2. “One of us, part of the hive-mind” adds considerable complexity to any claims of violated originality, however much you were kidding.

  3. I don’t think you are right here, Cory.  Glee has songs in each episode. I have to believe that there have been versions before now that were based on some cover song’s arrangement. No, what happened here is that Jonathan is (as mentioned above) well liked in nerd circles and also took offense that he did not get credit and publicized it before checking his own license and realizing they didn’t do anything illegal.  The outcry probably wouldn’t have happened if any of those three factors had been lacking.

    1.  there was a huge outcry when people found out that glee ripped off coulton, but that cry turn to white hot rage when more people came out to tell how fox had ripped THEM off too. people would have been as pissed if one of them had come out first but they weren’t as well known as coulton, they couldn’t reach as big of an audience, but if they had, if one of them had come to cory for instance and told HIM their story and he ran the story here, all of boingboing would be up in arms and then the entire internet.
      now the story coming from coulton does add some fuel to fire because coulton is one of us, people know who he is, and whats more they know about his character and that he wouldn’t make this up. so knowing nothing else if coulton just SAYS fox ripped him off people are already pissed, if someone else says it people will compare the versions THEN get pissed.

      1.  I haven’t heard of anyone else claiming that Fox ripped them off too, which is anecdotal evidence that they are not a large factor, at least from my point of view. But in the end, unless Fox actually used the instrumental track, they really didn’t rip him off. The real problem here is that the law and standard industry practice is out of step with what we all feel is ethically required. The requirement for attribution is so well ingrained and basic that there isn’t even a CC license that doesn’t have the attribution restriction. But I bet the Glee program did have the legally required attribution, and if so how can we fault them?

        1.  it was not creative commons(covers never are), it did not have an attribution clause, fox news did not at any point attribute this to coulton, nor have they ever recognized that it was his work.
          and it is still plagiarism even of you don’t use the audio track. and plagiarism is still ripping someone off. we don’t need laws for this because we all know plagiarism is bad.

          what fox did was bad, plain and simple and they NEED to be held accountable.

          1.  I know it isn’t CC. My point is that attribution is so much taken for granted that CC doesn’t even have a license that doesn’t include it.

            But the rest of your statement is just plain wrong. Virtually all of Glee’s music are cover songs. Nobody thinks that any of them are original to Glee, so your statement that it is plagiarism is incorrect, unless you think that all cover songs are plagiarism, but I hope you do not if you want to continue in this discussion.

            We also know that Glee almost certainly paid the required license fee, so they did not rip off anybody, unless they used the actual audio track. If they used the audio track then Jonathan Coulton would have had to get paid and approve, and since he says he did not, then if they did use it, then they did rip him off, but has this been proven.

            I don’t know about the case with the link you provided. It sounds like a similar situation to me, but I don’t know if the same license conditions apply to an arrangement of two songs.

            But I still think my original thesis is correct. If Jonathan Coulton had been more familiar with the terms of the license he paid for, he would never have posted about it. And as this other case shows, if he had posted and wasn’t a nerd favorite, nobody would have paid attention.  And if it wasn’t the case that the licensing system is the way it is, then we all would not have thought anything of it. As it stands, as far as I am aware, nobody has shown that Glee did anything wrong. They just didn’t do enough right (like acknowledge Coulton in the credits, although some claim that they could not legally do even that.)

          2. people know they are covers but assume they are ORIGINAL covers, that is when glee does a cover of baby got back they assume the cover is original to glee, not a copy of a cover of baby got back. they pass this original song off as their own.
            and them paying the license fee to sir mix-a-lot doesn’t change the fact that they ripped coulton off by not telling that he made the cover and they shamelessly plagiarized it. they may not be LEGALLY obligated to do so, but they should be MORALLY obligated.

  4. In reading about this story, I have seen multiple people commenting that Glee did the same thing to Greg Laswell when they used his version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.  You can see that the official Glee music website mentions Lauper but not Laswell:

    In contrast, for Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” they do not mention Parton at all:  I wonder if people tied to Houston’s version get anything when it is used?

  5. i had been arguing something on this line just yesterday, everyone was calling this theft i pointed out it’s not theft, theft takes something from someone such that the theif has it and the victim does not. glee did not steal his song, and there is no point muddying the waters with theft when plagiarism covers what they did very well, its exactly what this is. plain and simple plagiarism.

  6. I must preface this with the declaration that I hate Fox, have never watched Glee and think this thing they’ve done is wrong, however the following:

    “We have been misled about the origin of a product we’re being asked to purchase.”

    makes no sense. Since obviously someone purchasing the Glee version would be thinking they were purchasing the Glee version, not the J.C version. Are you saying that Glee, by selling the J.C version as the Glee version was selling the public a shoddy inferior Glee product?

    1.  they are selling something which they are passing off as the product of their work and inspiration, a work of art THEY created, not one that someone else created and they then claimed to be their own work.
      its the same as if i took a book review from the new york times or some other organization and re-wrote it word for word and handed that in as a book report at school. most classes you would instantly fail the class for that, if it was university you would be expelled, and rightfully so, what you did was wrong,it was lazy, it was deceitful, and you deserve to be punished for it.

  7. I think when you buy Tesco “Value” Beefburgers you know exactly what you’re getting. But you try not to think about it. 

    But that was never the problem. The real issue is the break down in the UK/EU meat and food tracking regulations. Somebody was supposed to be looking out for us and making sure that every bit of meat sold in the UK could be traced to source and proved not to contain TB or BSE or any of a host of other potentially life threatening unpleasantness. Instead the biggest national retailer was selling something that had been slipped illegally into the supply chain. This is not the 19th century any more or post-war ration busting and that wasn’t supposed to be possible. If horse meat could end up in beefburgers, then why not slaughtered TB-positive cattle or perhaps arbitrary meat from countries where routine testing isn’t done as rigorously.And again I’m reminded about John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up and Puritan Foods.

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