What happens when a comedian steals a joke? In most industries, creative material is effectively policed by Intellectual Property (IP) laws, putting a type of copyright on original material. However, in the chapter “Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy,” which will appear in an upcoming book from the University of Chicago Press, two University of Virginia law school authors find that stand-up comedians find their own ways to police originality in their work.
Instead of using the legal system to protect their jokes, comedians use a system of social norms. Based on 19 interviews with working comics, the authors found that some comics will confront an alleged joke stealer to try to work things out, while other comics will refuse to be on the same bill as a comedian who steals material. We see this every day with comedians like Patton Oswalt speaking out against his act getting stolen, or Marc Maron confronting Carlos Mencia about stealing jokes on his podcast WTF.
The chapter also explores the difficulty in determining whether a comedian has stolen a joke or has merely experienced “parallel thinking,” when multiple comedians come up with the same premise independently. Many comics interviewed in the chapter said that it is important for them to find their own point of view and explore unique material to avoid even the suspicion of having taken a joke. These comedians also find it easier to identify when their jokes have been used because they are written in a distinctive voice.
Usually, intellectual property rights serve to promote more creative material because it prevents people from repeating what has already been done. But despite the lack of formal property rights associated with stand-up material, the authors concluded that comics still create original acts. The system of social norms established in the stand-up community are enough to push the form forward and to encourage comics to establish their own voice and point of view, even though there are rarely legal ramifications for stealing a joke.