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The (Legal) Art of a Cover Song

Do you watch Glee? Are you embarrassed to admit it even if you do? Well, I am not afraid to publicly declare that I watch the musical dramedy from time to time. So you’re in good company (cue sigh of relief). I was attracted to the show for their various cover songs they’d put together. Sure, there’s a serious “ham” factor, but for the most part these kids are incredibly talented. The arrangements are fun and different, frequently mashing up two great songs. Call me egocentric, but one of my favorites was covering two Adele songs “Rumour Has It” and “Someone Like You”.

In the most recent episode, the crooners took on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” but what caught my attention was the slowed down, acoustic style version they chose to perform it with. As a cover song aficionado, I could appreciate that they chose Jonathan Coulton’s version of “Baby Got Back”, but soon felt betrayed when I saw online that the people at Glee chose NOT to seek permission from Jonathan Coulton the way the would from other artists. Coulton took to the internet (with the same Robin Hood vengeance as the Oatmeal) and is raising money for a charity with his cover of a Glee’s cover.

This battle isn’t unique to Glee, in advertising this happens all the time. Agencies avoid paying artist licensing fees in hopes of getting something close to the real thing. In many cases things come back to haunt them in the form a law suit from Mr. Tom Waits (or other smart artists). And while I’d pay good money to see Tom Waits perform on the witness stand, $2.6 million is a hefty fine (see Tom Waits v. Frito Lay).

I spoke to our VP of business affairs Jo Ella Mathis about this issue who told me “We secure a musicologist report for all work produced here, including stock music…Our music vendors do not want litigation at their doorstep and will openly tell an agency when they can’t come as close to a published track as the creative team may want.”

It’s a sensitive subject that business affairs takes very seriously.

Cover songs are making art of other people’s art. You need to follow the same precautions you would take licensing original work. If it’s a cover that you’re after, it adds an extra level of complexity. Otherwise, Tom Waits, Jonathan Coulton, heck — Sir Mix-A-Lot will be coming after you.

On a lighter note, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite covers that I didn’t know were covers and other covers that just make me happy.

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