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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

Fan video for Jonathan Coulton's "Down Today" made from public domain ballooning footage

Craig sez, "This is a music video I've edited for the song 'Down Today' by Jonathan Coulton (from his 2011 album, 'Artificial Heart,' produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants) using footage from public domain films mostly found on Archive.org. 'No! No! A Thousand Times No!! - a 1935 Fleischer Studio animated short film, starring Betty Boop, 'Voyage à Travers l'Impossible' (The Impossible Voyage) (1904) directed by Georges Méliès, 'Le Voyage Dans la Lune' (A Trip to the Moon) (1902) directed by Georges Méliès, 'Le Dirigeable Fantastique ou le Cauchemar d'un Inventeur' (The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship) (1905) directed by Georges Méliès, L.T.A. History of Balloons (1944). More music videos I've edited for songs from Jonathan Coulton's excellent 'Artificial Heart' album. Stream or buy the album 'Artificial Heart' at Jonathan Coulton's website.

Jonathan Coulton - "Down Today" unofficial music video (Thanks, Craig!)