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Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Laws Of Stand Up

Thanks to Pete Black at Freedom To Differ, who drew my attention to this article - "To Catch A (Joke) Thief" - about the interesting research of two legal academics at the University of Virginia.

Inspired by a viral video of comedian Joe Rogan confronting Carlos Mencia onstage at The Comedy Store of joke stealing, they have researched the comedy club world for a year and examined the protective measures comedians take to ensure they aren't the victims of joke theft.
The Mencia-Rogan argument led the two intellectual property law scholars to an interesting question: With scant legal protection for their work — copyright law plays little role in comedy — why are stand-up comedians willing to invest time and energy developing routines that could be stolen without legal penalty?

After almost a year of research that included interviews with comedians ranging from comedy club circuit neophytes to seasoned veterans of television specials, Oliar and Sprigman found that the world of stand-up comedy has a well-developed system of social norms designed to protect original jokes — and that the system functions as a stand-in for copyright law.
It doesn't really provide any legal recourse in IP for the comedians whose routines are pinched - if anything they draw a distinction between written with shared authorship and jokes/routines with multiple deliverers.

Instead, there's a community enforcement regime in place. It's almost a vigilante/seeking your own justice kinda deal with comedians - they either get revenge by public shaming, boycotting clubs which hire the offenders, threats of physical violence - or they talk to the offenders, compare arguments of who told it first/longest and often simply come to an arrangement to avoid embarrassment or detriment.

Surely the performance of a very particular routine attracts some form copyright protection, right? You can't copyright an idea, but if the wording of a particular bit is replicated, it could possibly fall under Part III of the Australian Copyright Act? As a "dramatic work"? Maybe? Possibly? I don't know.

It's an interesting article to read though.

Here is the Joe Rogan v Carlos Mencia argument...


Brian Baron said...

Jokes are "stolen" all the time.....the real difference is the delivery, persona, and performance. Jokes are not like a computer program or some kind of fundamental idea that is true all the time. Jokes depend on some many different variables that making a joke "happen" each time is nearly impossible. the truth is that if your "joke" is stolen and others use it, it is a compliment, or the joke wasn't really that good in the first place, because its not uniquely you.

James said...

That sounds true, but I don't know if I agree 100% with your "compliment" notion of copying. That's the kind of thing that would really depend upon the circumstances.

If there was a good routine (not an individual joke, I'm talking a whole routine) that someone knowingly took from me and they did it succesfully, as I had done elsewhere, I would want some form of public credit. But that's just me.

I - as a matter of principle - always credit my source if I tell a joke I know isn't mine and it gets a laugh from my mate who I've told it too. Because sooner or later, if you don't, you'll get caught out.

Brian Baron said...

All true, I guess for me its really a matter of feeling comfortable with your own material. Its rare that anyone gets up and says, "take my wife,..please" and get any laughs, or " have you ever noticed". Its just a matter of good foundational writing and performing, after I don't think you believe that Carlos Menstealia or Joe Rogan are really that funny...??