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Copyright for the New Year: Talking About Cee Lo Green

The Spring semester is about to start, and in my world that means that I will be teaching Copyright Law again.  Every year, like many IP teachers, I look for one or two contemporary examples of copyright in action to prime the students’ pumps, so to speak, during the first day of class, or two.  This year, among other things, we’ll be talking about Cee Lo Green.

Given the man’s notoriety over the last couple of days, you might think that I plan to get the students talking about what Cee Lo did in Times Square last Saturday night, covering John Lennon’s Imagine, changing a key line of the lyrics (from “no religion too” to “all religions true”), and setting off a howling firestorm online about whether Cee Lo dishonored Lennon’s memory or his message.  The copyright angle, of course, is this:  When Cee Lo and the relevant producers cleared the rights to the song, did they clear the rights to the change?  Did the contract even talk about changes (or no changes) to the lyrics?  It’s hard to imagine that Yoko would have said that the change is OK, if she’d been asked in advance.  So let’s assume that she didn’t agree …  that Cee Lo changed things on the fly … etc. etc.

That’s interesting, but it’s hardly worth a class session.  (For the record, I think that what Cee Lo did with the song was senseless (as in, it made no sense), but assuming that the rights were cleared, then the song was Cee Lo’s to sing, and he sang it.  No one thinks that Cee Lo made Lennon look bad, and no harm was done to Lennon’s memory or to  Lennon’s song itself.  If anything, the whole controversy revived interest in the original Imagine, which reads and sounds more marvelous than ever.)

No, the Cee Lo discussion for my class will have to do with the Muppets.  If you haven’t seen the recent Jason Segel/Muppets movie (and I recommend that you do!), you may not have seen this entertaining cover version of Cee Lo’s Fuck You:

And if you’ve been in a cave for the last many months and haven’t heard the original (or the Gwyneth Paltrow version from Glee), here it is:

(That’s the PG-rated, safe-for-radio-and-broadcast TV version.)

The question for the students will be this.  Let’s assume, as surely is the case, that Jason Segel and the other producers of the Muppets cleared the rights to Fuck You.

Why did they do that?  I don’t want to suggest that it was a bad idea to clear the rights, and I don’t want to spend much if any time on the hypothetical “if Cee Lo sued the Muppets, would/should Cee Lo win?”  I  want to surface the dozen or so reasons that went into the actual bargain — many of which have less rather than more to do with classic justifications for copyright law.  My semester in Copyright Law spends a lot of time talking about the institutional setting of copyright law, so that the students can see just what copyright is doing out there in the real world, and equally important, just what copyright lawyers actually do out there in the real world.  There are lots of ways to do that, and Cee Lo isn’t the only thing (or person) that I plan to talk about from the get-go.  But why not get started with that on day one?