1709 Blog: for all the copyright community

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The funny side of intellectual property

If one comedian nicks another comedian’s material, do they go to court? No. Instead they try talking it out. If that fails, the aggrieved stand-up bad-mouths the other, gets him banned from clubs, refuses to work on the same bill – or possibly thumps him.

Comedians’ unwritten copyright code differs in various ways from copyright law, as Dotan Oliar and Christopher Sprigman explain in their paper ‘Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-up Comedy’. It protects ideas, not just their expression, and if a comic establishes the premise of a joke, then he gets to own others’ contributions to it. Generally, the rules are simpler than legal copyright, so there’s no room for doubt when a rule-breaker is breaking the rules.

This social norm is relatively new apparently: in the vaudeville era it was acceptable to appropriate others’ jokes. Oliar and Sprigman suggest two reasons for the change. Firstly the mass media has created new incentives to create and protect original material. ‘If a comedian-thief lifted a joke off the vaudeville stage and told it traveling east, the originator could still use it traveling west. Today, if a joke thief tells a joke on radio or television or if an audience member posts it to a heavily trafficked Web site, it may consume the national market for the joke.’ Secondly, from the 1950s many comedians developed a more individualistic, narrative style. The more clearly original the material, the more practically feasible enforcement becomes. Oliar and Sprigman then ask whether the development of an informal IP system has reinforced the stylistic shift.

Can we draw general IP lessons from the comedy circuit? Caution is advisable as this code is operating in a close-knit community of people who already stake their reputations on their originality.

So what’s the least you can expect if you go round stealing punch lines? A short sentence.

2 comments:

Guy said...

A punch!

ben challis said...

Interesting Hugo - and well timed - you have probably noticed the story in the Times Today (22nd July 2010 at page 9) that comics Simon Evans and Ed Byrne have taken exception to Keith Chegwin's non stop barrage of jokes on Twitter - some of which are allegedly not his - and where he has an amazing 36,000 followers. The alleged victims of the 'theft' of jokes include Lee Mack, Paul Merton, Jimmy Carr and Perrier Award winner Milton Jones. Byrne told the Times that Chegwin was breaking a "gentleman's agreement" amongst comics not to steal each other's gags saying that jokes have a limited number of 'tells' and "if you go and see a comedian and think 'I've heard half of these jokes on Twitter' the moment is lost". But no mention of copyright.