The season finale of Glee was last week and my girlfriend relives the episode on Hulu about every other night (I am just an innocent bystander “forced to watch”). If you haven’t seen it, Glee is a show about a ragtag group of kids who come together defying all odds (and social barriers) to compete in state glee club competitions. Although the principal of the school constantly threatens to close down the club because of budget cuts (and this is an issue in every episode), the term Copyright License never enters the equation. Rightly so, as copyright issues never seem to bring the same audience as issues about teen pregnancy and high school relationships. However, as an IP attorney I can’t help but think about what consequences this tiny Ohio school would face if the catalogue of songs used in the show were performed by an actual school.
A wonderful blog post on this issue was written by Christina Mulligan, in Copyright: The Elephant In The Middle of the Glee Club. She wrote,
“In onerecent 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.”
These issues could sometimes be resolved by certain license agreement, such as a license acquired from TheAmerican Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). ASCAP is a company servicing creators of copyrightable works (songs, lyrics, compositions, etc.) by licensing out the works of these artists to the rest of us. A publisher of work, such as a school glee club would approach ASCAP to obtain a license to perform or play music from the ASCAP library of collected works. ASCAP is one of the largest licensing houses in the country and licenses the rights to thousands of songs. However, there are several rights available one can license when trying to use/perform a song, such as Adaptation, Recording, Reproduction, and Public Performance rights. These rights can be licensed individually or all together. According to Peter Jansson of Janssongs in an interview by The G-Man in the “More Music for Your Money – The Cold Hard Facts about License,” rights for certain songs can range from “anywhere between $1.00 and $250,000 (U.S.) for each one."
So a word to the wise, if there are any other Will Schusters out there, you might want to check your playlist and school copyright license before doing any trying to replicate any Madonna songs.