As you know, I write cover songs and have had my music stolen and used commercially almost in the same matter as JoCo (though nowhere near as large in scale as Fox’s Glee). So I’ll try to explain how this insane-ness is legal. Also, I’m not a lawyer, just an independent musician like JoCo (and a huge fan since 2006)
For those who don’t know, Fox’s Glee used JoCo’s arrangement of “Baby Got Back” (link) and he responded more about it here. The entire internet is roaring “how could this happen? justice!”
Here’s my 2 cents on what I think happened:
When I arrange a song, I don’t own in. At all. By copyright rule, my arrangements (or anyone’s arrangements) are owned by the original artist. That’s right. It’s my understanding that if you write a cover song on guitar, orchestra, banjo, anything - then the original songwriter/publisher (by default copyright law) owns your arrangement in full.
So I’m led to believe that Fox loved JoCo’s cover version, then reached out to Sir Mix A Lot’s publishers and licensed the song from them since they own JoCo’s arrangement of ‘Baby Got Back’. Jonathan Coulton doesn’t have to even be notified.
However, if JoCo’s original audio (like the duck quacking) is used in the song, then that means they used his sample - which is illegal. But it’s only illegal if his actual duck quack recording was taken from his cover song. If they used their own duck toy to create a similar quack, then I’d imagine they’re OK because it doesn’t sample JoCo’s original audio file.
To be clear, a song you listen to has basically 2 copyrights:
1. The actual mp3 recording (usually owned by the recording engineer)
2. The underlying composition (usually owned by the songwriter for things like sheet music, or to make another recording of their song, etc.)
This is why I’m starting to venture out on original songs, because all 150 arrangements I’ve made are not owned by me. I can’t license them, sell the sheet music (unless I get approved by the publisher), make them creative commons, or really do much of anything except sell them on iTunes.
(Here’s) a clear scenario in layman terms, skip to 15th paragraph to get to the meat of it.
I’m kind of for and against this default copyright law. The idea is that if I write a song, then you can’t make 200 cover song variations of it in the hopes to sue me if I ever re-arrange my music in the future. To be fair, it would suck to get sued for re-arranging my own music. I’d imagine there are also other purposes for this law, too.
As I stated, I’m not a lawyer, and this is not advice. It’s just an opinion article.
Anyway, welcome to the crazy world of copyright law that independent musician’s face. What do you think about it? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.