The Issue of Joke Theft in the World of Comedy

A few days ago, I was with my friends when one of them proceeded to share a joke. After our laughter had subsided, to my surprise I realised that I had previously heard the same joke from somebody else, even though my friend assured me that it was original. All creative spheres of our lives are susceptible to plagiarism, and comedy is no different. To ensure originality of work then, the academic field has numerous systems in place: along with their own name, authors have to cite all their sources, and ensure that the hard work of people directly or indirectly involved, does not go unacknowledged. Further, several online tools are also available to check if someone has plagiarised content and is trying to take undue credit.

However, no such mechanisms are in place as far as comedy is concerned; once a joke is made public, it is at the mercy of its audience. Unfortunately, many people do not value the effort that goes into writing a joke, as it seems like a simple string of words compared to the intensive and complicated nature of research papers, music, inventions, art, and so on. Further, with the increased number of comics that are popular today, there is no guarantee that people will be able to recall every joke’s respective creator. Giving due credit is made even more difficult because of technological advancement, as the same joke is shared by several people, which makes it tough to identify the true creator. Moreover, it is also possible that more than one person may think of the same joke. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to settle on the ownership of a joke, and there exists a high amount of plagiarism in the sphere of comedy.

The Importance of Joke Ownership

People in the comedy industry invest a lot of time and energy to be funny. Stand-up comedians for instance, go through various circuits in order to come up with a joke and a delivery that elicits the maximum laughter. To credit these efforts then becomes important, as does preventing joke theft.

The following example illustrates perfectly the harm done by joke theft, and the need for stringent measures. After the 2015 Grammy Awards, a picture went viral in which Kanye West was kissing his own face, that had been photoshopped on his wife’s body. The Instagram account ‘F**kJerry’ shared this picture, and eventually Kanye even released a song that seemed to reference the picture. However, it was found that this Instagram account was not the true creator of the picture, and was the brainchild of a small-time comic called Jen Lewis. F**kJerry did not credit her when sharing the picture, and as a result was presumed to be the creator of the infamous picture. The fame of the picture would have been a big career boost for Jen, since at that time Instagram accounts could make $30,000 for posting a single advertisement on their feed. Instead, it was F**kJerry who profited off someone else’s creative property, for the account was already well-known, and its popularity just multiplied by this viral picture. This ensured more advertisement contracts and consequently more income for the account.

How to Establish Joke Ownership

Although copyright laws are undoubtedly the most effective and popular way to protect ownership in other fields, they cannot be utilised in the field of comedy. As copyrights only protect the specific wording of a joke, a slightly rewritten version of a joke is more than enough to steal its essence, escaping unscathed through this gaping loophole. Further, people can have similar ideas due to similar circumstances, which can translate as similar jokes, making it tough for a court to distinguish between plagiarized jokes, and jokes with similar premises. Further, defending a joke with a copyright law is quite expensive, which is why copyright lawsuits for jokes are rare even though joke theft is a common phenomenon.

So how can joke theft be regulated? The paper titled ‘There’s No Free Laugh (Anymore): The Emergence of Intellectual Property Norms and the Transformation of Stand Up Comedy’ , highlights that comedians protect their jokes using a system of intellectual property norms. These norms serve as a stand-in for formal law, and regulate issues such as authorship, ownership, transfer of rights, exceptions to informal ownership claims, and the imposition of sanctions on norm violators with respect to joke theft. For instance, these norms are enforced with sanctions that attack the plagiarizer’s reputation. If a comedian gets a reputation of being a joke thief, the comedy world gets together to impose a public shaming and boycott. Comedians refuse to do shows with them and comedy clubs stop booking them, until the individual’s career is terminated.  This can be seen in the case of Jordan Paris, who made headlines for performing stolen jokes on the talent show ‘Australia’s Got Talent’. When he was exposed as a joke thief, his stand-up comedy career plummeted. Hence, even without intellectual property, this intra-community system ensures the production of original work in a cost-effective manner. For instance, if there is a known joke thief in the audience, a fellow comedian will write a note on a napkin, and send it to the performing comic through a waiter with drinks, so that the performer does not perform their best material, or an act that is precious to them.

Another popular joke thief was Robin Williams. Many young comedians would complain that he would attend their shows, laugh along with the audience, and then a few days or weeks later would appear on nationally broadcast television chat shows, and effortlessly drop their material into his conversation. Robin Williams even confessed to this in his performance, saying that he no longer remembered if the jokes he made were his own, or had been written and performed by someone else. As a result, when they saw Robin Williams in the audience, many comedians would either terminate their performance, or not perform their best material.

The Effectiveness of the Norm System
We see that social norms can effectively limit joke theft, by using aspects like fear and rejection from society. Further, comedians have even threatened joke thieves with acts of violence that include smashing in their car mirrors if they steal their joke. However, if a comedian does not care too much about the goodwill of the comedy community, disciplining them can be quite difficult. For instance, Robin Williams would offer upcoming performers hefty cheques as a settlement for using their jokes. Since most of these performers were broke and in the initial stages of their careers, they would be quite satisfied with this resolution.

Further, since court battles can last for quite a while, improving the informal system of joke regulation is a must, if it is to act as a viable substitute to the currently ineffective formal system. Although, so far, these norms have successfully restricted the amount of joke theft in the comedy world today, and the investment into creation of innovative jokes has increased substantially. Therefore, the existence of these social norms has prevented the market failure of comedy.

Picture Courtesy- Will Schoder, Youtube


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