OnlineRock Blog

17 December 2011

"Glee" Copies a Cover Song: Where Is Credit Due?

By Tomi Mendel

Singer-songwriter Greg Laswell has a bone to pick with Fox’s hit show Glee after seeing a cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on their November 29th episode. “I think they have enough talent over there that they shouldn’t need to go rummaging through other artists’ work,” he opined after hearing their “note-for-note rendition” of his own remake of Cyndi Lauper’s 1980’s classic. Laswell’s version, recorded in 2007 for the soundtrack to Confessions of a Shopaholic, was notable for stripping down the upbeat, synthy original and dramatically changing it into a poignant piano ballad sung by a man. Glee followed this formula extremely closely, churning out what is essentially a carbon-copy performed by Cory Monteith, who plays the character of “Finn Hudson” on the show. Unfortunately for Laswell, the team behind Glee has not given him his proper due for this use of his arrangement. Although surely a songwriting credit and a share of royalties would be most fair, Laswell is only asking for a name-drop at this point, noting, “Public acknowledgement...would have gone a long way.” 

Gregs just wanna have credit

This is not the first time Glee has capitalized on a buzz-worthy cover done by another artist. They adopted Nouvelle Vague’s laid-back rendition of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” in their first season, and they were accused of cribbing their arrangement for Usher’s “Yeah!” from a University of Oregon a capella group known as Divisi. The phenomenon is not limited to Glee either. For example, American Idol contestant David Archuleta garnered controversy in 2008 with a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that was praised as “original” by the judges, though it owed a significant debt to an earlier rendition by Eva Cassidy. Going back several decades, Simon & Garfunkel had a big hit with a version of the traditional tune “Scarborough Fair” that was based on an arrangement by folk artist Martin Carthy. The song’s copyright neglected to credit either Carthy or the traditional sources.

Nouvelle Vague is known for their coffee-house covers of songs from the 80’s

All of these instances are a part of a larger issue of rights controversies for writers and performers. Who makes the most important contribution to a song? There appears to be little consistency as to the credit given when it comes to the so-called “court of public opinion.” In many notable instances, we tend to think of a song’s writer even when a more famous interpretation exists. This is certainly true of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” On the other hand, in the case of songs like Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind,” Gary Jules’ “Mad World” or Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” the performances are so memorable that original writers/performers are lost in the shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael, Tears for Fears and Nine Inch Nails, respectively). This is also true of almost any song heard on top-40 radio, usually crafted by anonymous songwriting teams with little help from the performing artist. 

Tears for Fears singer Curt Smith performs “Mad World” with Gary Jules 

Of course, in the actual court of law, it is the original songwriters who claim the right to ownership of the tune. However, there is definitely an argument to be made for performers in the many cases where the particular rendition of a song is what precisely makes it so well-known. Anyone who listens to multiple covers of a popular tune can attest to the major ways in which a song can transform by simply changing the artist who is performing it. In such instances, the interpretation, rather than the composition, is arguably more important to a song’s character and its success. However, according to the United States Copyright Office, the song’s owner is the only person who can legally copyright a new arrangement of a tune. This means that unless a performer has explicit authorization from a songwriter to create a new arrangement, he or she has no right to ownership of the song.

There’s a lot of power in that “C”

In other words, inventive performers like Divisi and Nouvelle Vague have no legal means of protecting their arrangements from being pilfered by other artists or programs like Glee. Especially when a cover song is so distinctive and different from the original as to make everyone forget that there was ever another version, as with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” or Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” it can be difficult to understand why those artists do not earn some type of a writing credit. It’s hard to believe that Soft Cell would receive no royalties if Glee were to release an exact remake of their version of “Tainted Love” (originally written by Ed Cobb and performed by Gloria Jones). However, that is exactly what would happen according to copyright law. 

Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” was a big hit in Northern Soul clubs in the U.K.

While the current rules are not particularly fair for performers who like to be creative and original in their interpretations of songs, it is a complicated issue with no simple solution. However, shows like Glee should work hard to credit both the writers and the interpreters who inspire their performances. No law prevents public acknowledgement of these artists, and failing to compensate or at least to mention the source of inspiration only serves to give the impression of stealing for one’s own benefit. It’s akin to a college student re-using his friend’s term paper and claiming it as his own. Nothing is sadder than the idea of a huge, corporate endeavor like Glee making millions by exploiting clever and creative independent artists, and one would hope that these types of shows can start to do a better job of helping, rather than hurting, others in the music community. For the time being, Greg Laswell will have to hope that the controversy about the issue will indirectly help in sending a few more listeners his way.


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