What Jonathan Coulton’s Battle With FOX Can Teach Us About a World Without Intellectual Property

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Like most Americans with good taste and an inability to turn their brains off, I ditched the popular FOX show Glee a couple seasons ago (about the time when Quinn Fabray didn’t die). For me, the show’s attempts to be friendly to issues of sexuality turned shallow and nauseating, and the quality of its covers and mashups slowly declined.

Perhaps the decline of its songs can best be explained by the fact that they have been copying covers from the Internet.

Popular Internet independent musician Jonathan Coulton has recently spoken out about the recent Glee cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “I Like Big Butts.” According to Coulton, FOX’s cover sounds just like his own; Coulton even posits that FOX lifted the instrumentals directly from his recording.

He’s probably right, but I think this makes a lot of sense for FOX. Glee‘s storyline long ago reached the depths of a 3rd grade fiction assignment; now they are succumbing to gradeschool tactics to get music as well. Form fits function. Any real artist would agree. FOX’s legal team has even come up with an asinine childish response:

They also got in touch with my peeps to basically say that they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure ….

Or, better translated: No one told me I couldn’t!

Now that I have made my distaste for FOX and Glee quite clear, it’s time to drop the bombshell: Coulton does not have legal rights to exclusively sell or market his cover, nor should he.

Coulton did not create something that exists in the material world. This means it’s not governed by scarcity. FOX reproducing the cover does not keep him from distributing his own. If FOX took, say, his recording equipment, that’d be a different story because there’s a finite number, and Coulton would have to pay for new equipment. Coulton can simply make more copies (infinite copies) of his song and sell them.

In fact, this is exactly what Coulton has chosen to do. According to Zap 2 it:

On Saturday (Jan. 28), Coulton posted a single, “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” to iTunes, GooglePlay and AmazonMP3. He explained the track in his blog:

“It’s a cover of Glee’s cover of my cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song, which is to say it’s EXACTLY THE SAME as my original version.”

Even better from a good-beats-evil standpoint is the fact that Coulton will be giving away the profits (after licensing and other fees) to charities — the VHI Save the Music Foundation and The It Gets Better Project.

Coulton could have even re-re-covered the song to accomplish the same goal. Since neither FOX nor Coulton are protected by IP law, they are free to remix and attempt to outsell each other, producing different mixes of songs until they die (or produce A LOT of money for charity).

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.08.21 PMThough Coulton and his followers are upset by FOX’s actions, this is a perfect example of the creative back-and-forth that comes from a market without the infringement of intellectual property. FOX and Coulton aren’t stealing from one another. They are reproducing each other’s work and expanding the audience of the original song.

This can (and does) work the same way with product patents as well. Let’s say, for example, Apple had a soul and didn’t spend more money on digging up outdated IP law so they can sell substandard products at exorbitant prices. Better yet, let’s assume there’s no IP law for Apple to beat into the ground.

Apple would produce its substandard computers and, eventually, someone would create the same product for cheaper. This would force Apple to innovate and work around the knockoff: introducing new features, improving old bugs, etc. This would cause the quality of Apple products to soar while its prices decreased, meaning that its product would be exponentially better and it would be more affordable.

FOX and Jonathan Coulton are, unknowingly, making the world a better place by acting like children on a playground. Hey, at the end of the day, all I care about is getting to listen to awesome music.

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About the author

Gina Luttrell

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Gina Luttrell is the Editor-in-Chief of the libertarian women’s magazine, Thoughts on Liberty. She is an Arts and Entertainment columnist at PolicyMic, and her writings have also appeared in TownHall, The Blaze, and The Chicago Sun Times. She is also a Young Voices Advocate. When she’s not fighting for the future of the free world, she is probably sleeping. She also occasionally reads science fiction and fantasy, plays video games, and tinkers with web and graphic design. She currently resides in Philadelphia, PA. She graduated cum laude from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA with a Bachelor’s in philosophy and political science. You can follow her on Twitter and subscribe to her witticisms on Facebook.

  • http://www.clichegames.com Anthony

    What’s the thrust here? That we should get rid of IP law and devolved into sand kicking fight over who didn’t credit whom?

    Also, I think Glee isn’t necessarily the best example for anything discussing INTELLECTUAL property.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevinboyd1984 Kevin Boyd

    “Apple would produce its substandard computers and, eventually, someone would create the same product for cheaper. This would force Apple to innovate and work around the knockoff: introducing new features, improving old bugs, etc. This would cause the quality of Apple products to soar while its prices decreased, meaning that its product would be exponentially better and it would be more affordable.”

    Bad example. I’m making this comment from an Android phone.

  • http://twitter.com/J_Jammer JayJay

    Bitter much?

    Colton got more publicity out of this than he could ever dream. Had they credited him he wouldn’t have gotten this much press or attention.

    I’d like to see how you’d react if someone “used” one of your articles to up their popularity the world over because they had the means to do so. I’m sure your idea of what’s property would alter if it became you who was the focus of this theft as borrow.

    • http://thoughtsonliberty.com V.A. Luttrell

      I doubt it.

      • http://twitter.com/J_Jammer JayJay

        If you believed your trite thinking you wouldn’t attach your name to your writing.

        • http://thoughtsonliberty.com V.A. Luttrell

          Why do you say that?

          • http://twitter.com/J_Jammer JayJay

            Everything’s everyone’s.

  • http://twitter.com/NerdLibertarian Nerdy Libertarian

    I think it was less about legality as even Coulton puts all his stuff under Creative Commons licensing meaning anyone can remix and parody his stuff for free as long they attribute him, and more about the ethics of attribution. The song used on Glee is clearly an almost verbatim copy of his arrangement from the banjo part to the singer saying Johnny C. The man signed the song and they left that lyric in the track they sell on iTunes.

    All he wants is to be credited for the work he put into his arrangement.

    • http://twitter.com/J_Jammer JayJay

      Then why does he whine about not getting paid?

      • http://twitter.com/NerdLibertarian Nerdy Libertarian

        Where does he whine about not getting paid? He hasn’t. The only thing he mentioned is if they used his actual original banjo or other recording track he is probably legally entitled to compensation. I would not say he has been whining and has actually handled himself with aplomb.

  • http://twitter.com/J_Jammer JayJay

    Then why does he whine about not getting paid?

  • Sound of Silver

    Question: Is this article referring to ALL songs, or was it merely okay because the Jonathan Coulton version was merely a cover of the Sir Mix-a-Lot original? I’m pretty sure you’re referring to the latter, but if so, I think you should make it a little more clear in the article that it is only in this situation that IP law doesn’t apply, not in any song stealing situation.