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


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.