I was recently asked this question:
“I have a quick question for you. Are there any copyright laws around telling someone else’s jokes? If you hear someone telling your joke at a paid gig do you have any rights or is that just the nature of the business?”
I thought I’d share my answer:
Quick answer: Yes.
The same copyright laws that protect written work and performances protect comedians. The trouble is proving who published first. This can be done by uploading video to youtube, which automatically time stamps it. You can also mail a copy to yourself (physical mail, not email) and then never opening the envelope, because the postmark is dated. In the court challenge the offender will have to prove they published first by a similar method (some courts do take reputable sworn witnesses to having witnessed a performance, but that sometimes isn’t admissible). Verbatim joke theft is easier to prove, stealing concepts are harder to prove. As a plaintiff you’d have to prove that the defendant had a chance to witness your joke or else it could be dismissed as parallel thought.
Unfortunately it seems systemic in our business. Robin Williams’ agent supposedly used to haul out his cheque book anytime someone accused Robin of stealing a bit. Denis Leary’s act is considered to be a rip off of Bill Hicks. Carlos Mencia allegedly has stolen from many people, and not even well. Dane Cooke has been under fire for stealing ever since his second album.
It seems many comics who have success after 10 years of trying, find it difficult to follow it up within a new year and thus resort, consciously or unconsciously, to theft.
To launch a lawsuit you have to prove that the defendant made money with your joke and that is what you’re entitled to, in the states you can also sue for the equivalent of pain and suffering. Some people say the first person to take the joke to TV wins, but I think new media has eclipsed that old axiom. In the year 2000 Glen Foster sued Andrew Grose (both established Canadian comics) for one million dollars. Glen accused Andrew of plagiarism for riffing one of Glen’s jokes during a TV taping. The joke was said while Andrew’s make-up was being touched up onstage and was not meant for the final product BUT fans of Glen Foster were in the audience and word got back to him. Andrew Grose fired back a defamation case. Both cases were eventually dropped.
I’ve had jokes stolen in the past, and generally I’ll do nothing unless I consider it to be an exceptionally personal or good joke. First thing I do is casually confront the person who did my bit and inform them that it’s similar to a joke I do and ask them when they wrote it. Some people fess up and stop.
For the most part, if someone steals one of my jokes I like to look at it this way: they admit I’m a better writer. They may have that one joke, but I have the ability to write another.