Photo: David M. Russell/CBS
For Brooklyn-based indie musician Jonathan Coulton, Sunday night’s installment of The Good Wife, in which warring lawyers Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) battle in court over intellectual-property rights, was a case of art imitating life. The episode took its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration from his January 2013 kerfuffle with the producers of Glee, after the Fox show used Coulton’s self-described “kind of poppy, kind of folky, white-guy” cover arrangement of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” without permission or credit. While Glee had acted within its legal rights, the court of public opinion let it be known that Coulton was in the right: His “Baby Got Back” cover, an Internet hit upon its release in 2005, shot up the iTunes charts and overtook the Glee version, in part because Coulton’s legion of fans torpedoed the latter with negative reviews. On The Good Wife, the rap ditty in legal question was named “Thicky Trick”; Glee became Drama Camp; and Coulton’s alter ego was a bespectacled, lanky, slightly obtuse musician named Rowby (portrayed by guest star Matthew Lillard), who comprised one half of the fictitious folk-pop duo Rowby and Marshall. (Christopher Fitzgerald played Marshall.) Here, Coulton — who also serves as the house musician on the NPR game show Ask Me Another — tells Vulture what he thought of the episode, what it was like seeing his life play out in scripted format, and how long it took him to get “Thicky Trick” out of his head.
I did not hear ahead of time from CBS or The Good Wife about this episode. The first I heard was when I was checking my Twitter feed, as I compulsively do throughout the day, and people started talking about The Good Wife and saying, “Oh, my gosh, is this thing based on Jonathan Coulton and Glee?” I dismissed the first couple as people being foolish, and then there were enough of them that I said, “Well, why don’t I check that out?” And sure enough, there it was.
I’ll be honest: We didn’t watch all of it last night. We were in the middle of a movie. I felt like I didn’t want to hijack [my family]’s evening to stroke my own ego by watching the show that had taken my life from the headlines. I also confess that I had a little bit of fatigue on the story itself, because it is a thing that I went through and it was not a super-fun thing while it was going on.
“Thicky Trick,” I gotta say, it’s a pretty catchy song. It had to be: They played the chorus twenty times over the course of the episode. I was definitely humming it the rest of the day. I was particularly impressed with the way they changed the quality of the recording and the arrangements in that scene where they flipped back and forth between the Matthew Lillard version and the Drama Camp version. The Matthew Lillard version was a much smaller sound, as if it were done in a home studio and the drums were really tiny and clearly just a loop. And then they would switch back to the Drama Camp version and it was this big, full, pop-sounding recording — which pretty much nailed the quality differences between my track and the Glee track. Frankly, I think the Glee track is much better produced than mine was. So, yeah, whoever did the music on that episode, props to them.
Having looked over the edge into the gaping maw of litigation, one of the things that struck me about the show was that they really took care of that litigation pretty quickly and easily. You get the impression that maybe it’s happening over a couple of days. There’s only four lawyers involved. You only see a few witnesses. And then they just kind of wrap it up.
In the real world, that’s not the way things work. Even if you have somebody on contingency, you’re still paying for expenses along the way. If you hire an expert witness, you’ve got to pay them. Plus, it’s not as if you file suit and then they say, “Okay,” and they show up in court. You file suit and they file countersuit and then there’s the discovery process … it can take yeeears to go through something like that. Especially if you’re going to fight somebody as big as Fox. So while I am delighted that the good guys won [on The Good Wife], as I was watching I was also like, “Yeah, it would not have gone this way.”
I was delighted to see Matthew Lillard playing the Coulton character, to the extent that he was the Coulton character. I will say I was sad that they wrote him as kind of a dumb, underinformed character. Like, he can’t remember the name of the license they got for the song; he can’t fully understand the legal things that are happening. Whereas I felt like, I’m a smart guy; I got my compulsory license myself. Certainly if you are about to sue a large corporation, you might want to sit down and read some of the law involved before you get on the witness stand.
But I did like that he was funny and he was irreverent in a way that I only wish I could be. I’m too afraid of authority to be as irreverent as my fictional version was. And then I was trying to figure out who his Teller-like sidekick character maps to in my life. John Hodgman, maybe? He never shuts up, though, so it can’t be him.
I was amazed that the episode hit all of the beats it hit because it is some really complicated legal stuff: the idea that there’s this compulsory license, which is a license you can get to do a cover song, but that is different from doing a derivative works license, where you are getting a license to actually change a song, to make a new version of a song that is somehow transformative. Usually you watch these procedural legal shows and they like to make it easy for people to consume their television, so they don’t do all the complicated legal mumbo-jumbo. So I was surprised that they stayed as true to the legal details as they did.
It is just about a year ago that I was alerted to the Glee version of the song. The emotion of that has faded for me, but at the time it was just infuriating. Seeing the response from the Internet at large was really gratifying because most people got it; most people looked at the situation and said, “Yeah, that’s wrong. I don’t care if it’s illegal or what, but it’s wrong.” So it was nice to watch the episode because I feel like the Good Wife writers got it, too. They were not really cutting Glee any slack in their construction of the episode. And of course in their version, the good guys win, which is good news.
You don’t get to pick what you’re famous for necessarily, and I think this story had a really big footprint. In my darker moments, I think maybe this story had a much bigger footprint than the rest of my career, which has not involved litigation. One of the reasons I stopped pursuing [legal action] was, well, how do you define a win in this situation? I don’t really want to spend years going through litigation. I don’t really want this to be the new stage in my career where I’m this guy who’s fighting this legal battle for years. There was a point where I looked back and said, “Well, jeez, anybody over at Glee and Fox who has the capacity to feel embarrassed and ashamed has got to feel embarrassed and ashamed by now. It’s not just me saying they did this wrong thing. It’s everybody.” So that’s a good enough win for me.