Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Hey, Stop Stealing My Jokes!

Remember those moments back in college or at work when your friend or colleague 'stole your thunder' by quoting your joke? You had come up with this brilliant funny piece about the new lady professor's dressing sense and had done a small dry run with your friend, but the rascal upstaged you by telling the joke when both of you are in a larger group of peers? Or when you came up about a good imitation of the client's reaction and wanted to score some brownie points with the boss, but your cubicle mate overheard you and mentioned it in the review meeting before you. Now that we know that humor is a great way to attract the opposite sex, this kind of 'humor piracy' just got costlier.

So some people have decided that this needs to be dealt with. This article studies "The Emergence of Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy". And before you think that it is all a big laugh, sample this;
Copyright law does not provide effective protection to stand up comedians, a fact made clear by close look at the business of stand-up. Despite what appears to be a persistent practice of joke stealing among stand up comedians, there have been few lawsuits asserting copyright infringement in jokes, and there is little evidence of threatened litigation, settlements, or indeed public dissatisfaction among comics regarding the weakness of IP protection.

This is very true. The only instances which comes to my mind are Sienfeld's irritation that Banya (a stand up comic character in the hit comedy sitcom) is stealing Seinfeld's thunder by working the crowds right after Seinfeld's bit or Russel Peters 'making a joke' about the many 'Bast**ds who are sitting at home downloading' his comedy routines. Both these are instances of preventing the 'piracy' of content by mooching of another's popularity. But these are not instances where the comic is worried about somebody else using his or her content. In fact, humor is something which we never seem to associate very much with the comic, apart from the way each person delivers the humorous routine; I would for instance find a Yo! Mama joke just as funny if I read it on some comic's internet website or if a friend had it as his gTalk tagline!

This brings us to the crux of the issue. Should 'humor intellectual property' be protected? While this is similar to a situation in the music industry where the creative content is being pirated and the creators of this content are not able to reap its full benefit, the humorous intellectual property arguement at first glance seems funny! Now, don't get me wrong; I am sure the comic needs to be protected from just as many negative externalities so that there is incentive for him to remain funny, but maybe the humor industry is more similar to the fashion industry (And no, I do not mean that the fashion industry is a joke). Going by Tyler Cowen's arguement that fashion is a status good, and the 'rip offs' syndrome in fashion is a stimulus (or incentive) for creating new fashion, the Humor 'industry' can also be a status good. Humor afterall is an indication of physical and mental wellbeing (hence attracting the opposite sex to the one one who possesses good humor). Hence, the more humor is ripped off or 'stolen' the more the incentive for the comic to come up with a better joke.

But there might be a catch in this line of reasoning; if I go and buy a Gucci rip off at a much lower price, I (the consumer) still aspiring to be seen in designs which have a likeness to a Gucci design and thereby gain a positive aura. At the same time Gucci's brand grows in my mind. But when a comic steals another's routine, the original comic does not get the recognition from the consumer for his intellectual creation. And this is not funny at all!

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