Tonight is the season finale of Glee, a surprising popular TV show about scrappy high school show choir set in Lima, Ohio. Think High School Musical without the grimy coating of Disneyfied lameness.
In honor of the upcoming finale, Christina Mulligan of the Yale Law School Information Society Project blog has an interesting take on something that's not in the show:
The fictional high school chorus at the center of the show has a huge problem, you see — nearly a million dollars in potential legal liability….
In one recent episode, the AV Club helps cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester film a near-exact copy of Madonna's Vogue music video (the real-life fine for copying Madonna's original? up to $150,000). Just a few episodes later, a video of Sue dancing to Olivia Newton-John's 1981 hit Physical is posted online (damages for recording the entirety of Physical on Sue's camcorder: up to $300,000). And let's not forget the glee club's many mash-ups — songs created by mixing together two other musical pieces. Each mash-up is a "preparation of a derivative work" of the original two songs' compositions – an action for which there is no compulsory license available, meaning (in plain English) that if the Glee kids were a real group of teenagers, they could not feasibly ask for — or hope to get — the copyright permissions they would need to make their songs, and their actions, legal under copyright law. Punishment for making each mash-up? Up to another $150,000 — times two.
The absence of any mention of copyright law in Glee illustrates a painful tension in American culture. While copyright holders assert that copyright violators are "stealing" their "property," people everywhere are remixing and recreating artistic works for the very same reasons the Glee kids do — to learn about themselves, to become better musicians, to build relationships with friends, and to pay homage to the artists who came before them. Glee's protagonists — and the writers who created them — see so little wrong with this behavior that the word 'copyright' is never even uttered.
You might be tempted to assume that this tension isn't a big deal because copyright holders won't go after creative kids or amateurs. But they do: In the 1990s, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) asked members of the American Camping Association, including Girl Scout troops, to pay royalties for singing copyrighted songs at camp. In 2004, the Beatles' copyright holders tried to prevent the release of The Grey Album – a mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album — and only gave up after massive civil disobedience resulted in the album's widespread distribution. Copyright holders even routinely demand that YouTube remove videos of kids dancing to popular music. While few copyright cases go to trial, copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) don't hesitate to seek stratospheric damage awards when they do, as in the Jammie Thomas-Rasset filesharing case….
Defenders of modern copyright law will argue Congress has struck "the right balance" between copyright holders' interests and the public good. They'll suggest the current law is an appropriate compromise among interest groups. But by claiming the law strikes "the right balance," what they're really saying is that the Glee kids deserve to be on the losing side of a lawsuit. Does that sound like the right balance to you?
I know that's a long excerpt, but the whole post is worth reading. Go check it out here.
And here's a recent episode, in case you're curious.