Asking Permission vs Begging Forgiveness

A pair of things of interest to me tore around the internet last month. And by “tore around the internet”, I mean a few thousand people talked about them, a bit.

1) The Fox television show “Glee” went ahead and outright stole, from internet-famous geek musician and all around neat guy Jonathan Coulton, the arrangement, lyrics, and possibly even the background audio of his cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. The whole story of the whole brouhaha is well-covered elsewhere, but let’s just say that while the producers of “Glee” are most likely completely within their legal rights to rip-off make a “cover of a cover” with virtually no original elements whatsoever and without any credit whatsoever to the guy they’re, uhm, “co-covering” with (because, while they are many things, Fox’s lawyers are not dumb), they’re most definitely being huge jerks about it. The endgame for now on this is that Jonathan Coulton’s “cover of a cover of a cover of ‘Baby Got Back’” (which is just his original cover) is outselling Glee’s version by a handy amount, with the proceeds going to charity, no less.


2) Sundance screened the film “Escape from Tomorrow”. Randy Moore spent three years making a movie by filming in Disney Orlando, without permission. Had to be very careful to hide his crew and cast as average resort-goers, just taking pictures rather than filming scenes of a narrative film. All the script pages and call sheets and shot lists were kept on iPhones and the like, never printed out, and none of the people who happened into the shots were informed that they were, in fact, extras in a movie. The path the movie might take following Sundance et al is unclear, as even the sales agent that has taken it on admits that it’ll be very difficult finding legal clearance for a general commercial release. I’m actually somewhat skeptical that its festival appearances won’t wind up carrying some legal headaches for lots of people, once Disney decides to notice the whole thing.

As much fun as I’ve had following the details of both stories, I have to admit that I’m far more interested in the differences I’ve seen in the reaction to them. With Glee-vs-JoCo, the general consensus of the portion of the internet that cares one way or another is that regardless of whether or not any actual laws were broken (they probably weren’t), the producers of Glee are thieves, and Coulton is a victim of outright theft. With “Escape from Tomorrow”, the majority of the reaction that I’ve seen has been fascinated by it, with Moore portrayed as an artist being very clever, and that Disney would be big fat meanies to interfere with this clever art with their draconian lawsuits, if they ever do.

But, get right down to it, the injury being done in both cases (as much as there is injury being done) is the same: the use of others’ work or property without permission or consent.

Glee didn’t ask Jonathan Coulton if they could use his changed lyrics, or the music he wrote for the cover. They just took it and ran, and didn’t give him even the least amount of credit. Similarly, Moore didn’t ask Disney if he could shoot a movie in their park. Knowing that he would probably be denied (or, in the unlikely event that they did say “yes”, asked to pay a crapload of money), he just did it and left the ramifications to be dealt with later.

Glee’s position is probably legally fairly safe, while Moore’s is waaaaaaay shakier (considering it was private property, he’s utilizing the brand of Disney and the images they’ve got trademark and copyright and ownership of, and to boot he’s using images of people, the other park-goers, without their permission or notification. Even when a regular film shoot is on a public city street that anyone can walk along and wind up in the shot, it’s required that Filming Notices be up all over the place, letting those people know that they’re about to walk into what has become a film set). But in both cases, you’ve got someone who saw that just doing the sketchy thing, and potentially getting flak for it, was better than trying to be proper and forthright and getting denied. The risk that the entity with the right -perhaps legally but definitely morally- to say “yes” or “no” might have said “no” justified potentially breaking the law and definitely stretching the moral code. And more, doing so in a way that the perpetrators would definitely not want practiced upon themselves.

(on that last point: consider Fox’s feelings towards BitTorrent or PirateBay. Then consider how Moore might feel about people sneaking into his backyard to make porn movies while he was away)

I don’t find “asking permission” to be all that much of a hardship, and I’ve been denied on many occasions, and had to find some work-around for my original, untenable plans. Very often, the need for that work-around makes the end-result better than the original concept. “Begging forgiveness” is easier, possibly cheaper, often seems lazier, and regularly includes an attitude best described as a raised middle finger.

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