In January 2013, the internet erupted with consternation as FOX series Glee released a cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 song “Baby Got Back” that exactly copied independent artist Jonathan Coulton’s cover. As Coulton explained on his blog, this was perfectly legal despite being evidently unethical. Under contemporary U.S. intellectual property law, the distinction between “original” and “derivative” works is black and white—Coulton’s work, as a cover derived from another work, had no originality and therefore could be copied with impunity. FOX suggested that Coulton was benefiting from the exposure, though he ruefully noted that this was “SECRET exposure” as he was not credited by Glee.
Coulton’s creative transformative labor, because it took as raw material someone else’s intellectual property, was legally fair game to be exploited. This captures precisely the dynamic I describe in my Cinema Journal “In Focus: Fan Labor and Feminism” contribution, “Spinning Yarn with Borrowed Cotton: Lessons for Fandom from Sampling.” If Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song or a television show is cotton, Coulton’s transformative reuse or that conducted by fans is spinning yarn—adding new and different value in the transformation of the original. However, because the cotton they spin belongs to someone else, no matter how inventive the spinning, they have no legal capacity to stop someone else from using the product. What Glee did, and what the media industry increasingly does to fans, is take the yarn to macramé, relying on the distinction between “original” and “derivative” to exploit the labor of spinning for its own ends without compensation.
Both cases show how social inequalities play out with respect to labor, copyright, and authorship. In the Coulton story, called #JoCoGleeGate during the controversy, the greater legal and economic power of FOX facilitated their theft of Coulton’s creative production. With the histories of the African American blues tradition and indigenous music described in “Spinning Yarn,” the legal and economic power differential is compounded by race. For fans, the operative axis of inequality has traditionally been gender. Ultimately, I argue, recognizing transformative reuse as legitimate and as labor rests not on the distinction between the original and the copy, as is often claimed in order to justify restriction in the name of protecting art, but between the powerful and the disempowered.