Glee and Copyright Law

In one recent episode, the AV Club helps cheerleading coach Sue
Sylvester film a near-exact copy of
Madonna’s Vogue music
(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.

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