I know basic US music copyright law. I mean, I'm no lawyer, but I studied it in college and just spent a couple hours on the US Copyright website to brush up. Technically as soon as you put your song in a fixed form (paper, cd, digital counts - performing it does not) then it's copyrighted. The reason people pay $35 a song to register it in Washington is to get a searchable record of it and it's the only way to make sure your copyright will stand up in court if, in the impossible case, GLEE were to steal your song.
Welp, that's what happened to Jonathan Coulton, the singer/songwriter from Brooklyn. He covered Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" on his 2005 album and last week Glee used his arrangement of the song for their latest episode (and iTunes release).
Now, this is tricky, because it's a cover of a cover. Technically Jonathan COULD HAVE registered his cover as a "derivative work" within 5 years of his release, but apparently didn't. Who would?
Glee has used his musical composition (and Sir Mix-A-Lot's lyrics) for their show and to profit from on iTunes. Sir Mix-A-Lot is being paid a mechanical royalty every time someone downloads the Glee version, but Jonathan is not. Not only that, Glee didn't credit him anywhere and their people told Jonathan's people that he should be happy with the exposure and that they're within their legal rights to do this. Jonathan posted on his blog:
Even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it's my version, so you know, it's kind of SECRET exposure). While they appear not to be legally obligated to do any of these things, they did not apologize, offer to credit me, or offer to pay me, and indicated that this was their general policy in regards to covers of covers.
I'm interested to see if Jonathan's lawyer's can find a way around the 5 year clause of registering the work with the US Copyright office. The US Copyright website explains that even though you don't need to register your work for it to be technically copyrighted, you must have it registered before any infringement suit can be claimed.
I guess props to the GLEE lawyers for looking it up and discovering that Jonathan hadn't registered his version. (Assholes)
What can we learn from this?
Well, it's better to be safe than sorry! Register your work before it's released. Technically you can register your entire album as 1 work for $35 - so it's not actually that expensive. So just do it. If you want people to be able to look up your individual songs, then register each song separately - that's a bit pricier.
You can do it all electronically here.