A couple of news stories caught my attention this week, both covering the alleged copyright infringement of jokes posted online.
In the first, published by the Independent, tweets have reportedly been taken down by Twitter for "copyright infringement". The 140-character jokes were originally posted by Olga Lexel, a freelance writer. The jokes appeared in their original form on a number of other feeds, without crediting her as the author. Lexel was successful in petitioning Twitter to remove the copies.
In the second, published by the comedy news site Chortle, celebrity chat show host Conan O'Brien is being sued for the alleged theft of four jokes posted on the site of San Diego blogger Alex Kaseberg. On four occasions, a similar joke to Kaseberg's appeared on the chat show on the same day, or day after, the joke was published to Kaseberg's blog. The writer is seeking up to $780,000 in damages.
I find this fascinating, having previously worked in the UK comedy industry. There's a code of honor (in London, at least) - if a group of comedians are socializing, and an original joke appears out of nowhere, the one who created it has first refusal rights over the exclusive incorporation into their prepared material. This doesn't happen often, and friends have noted, dryly, that the most successful comedian in a group tends to get possession of the material simply by saying it first on television (or rather more insidiously, attending the preview shows of smaller comedians and then lifting material for their own blockbuster Saturday night sets).
But heck, joke theft is practically how the comedy, as a thing, developed. A comedian overhears something some bloke said in a bar, and adapts it into their material, refines it, then presents it to an audience with their own unique insight and delivery. Whilst this isn't exactly the same as lifting material word-for-word from a website, it demonstrates the way in which jokes, and comedy, develop within and alongside our society. Imagine a world in which old Billy from the Nag's Head initiates proceedings against you for copyright infringement, after you repeat his gag about the plumber with the wonky knee in your speech to the society - it's crazy.
All in all, it's become a strange old world, where laughter is only permitted when the joke is told by the correct person. It's only correct to credit and thank people for using their original insight to bolster your own material - especially when they make a living from their writing. But that can't come at the expense of the material itself, or the format in which it is told. It's a tricky situation - one might say, "joke theft is no joke". . .
I'd be really interested in hearing about this issue from a legal perspective - how does copyright protection work for material like this? @JamesDLamont
American chat show host Conan O'Brien is being sued for alleged joke theft. San Diego blogger Robert Alex Kaseberg has filed a lawsuit claiming the show violated copyright on four gags he posted online. On January 14 he wrote on his blog: 'A Delta flight this week took off from Cleveland to New York with just two passengers. And they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight." A similar joke was cracked on Conan's show on the same day, or the day after, in each instance between January and June this year. Kaseberg is seeking damages of $780,000 for the four jokes, described as 'literary works' in the papers filed in California federal court. If he wins what he seeks, he would land more than £125,000 per joke.