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.