The other day I had the pleasure of attending a faculty workshop here at the University of Minnesota Law School where Chris Sprigman from the University of Virginia Law School presented a paper he coauthored with his colleague Dotan Oliar entitled “The Emergence of Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy.” The paper and talk were informative, insightful, and of course funny. Plus, what geniuses they were to come up with academic work that required them to interview comedians and read about the history of humor!
Oliar and Sprigman show how the clubby world of nightclub comics (an estimated 3000 members nationwide) generated an informal system of copyright-like protection for jokes. In the earlier days of post-vaudeville comedy, where rapid-fire one-liners were the key and stand-up was performed live to purely local audiences, originality was not that important and people bought, copied, and stole jokes all the time, more or less with impunity. But as originality and personality-infused humor became more important in modern comedy (they credit Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce as the transitional figures), and acts were shown to the whole world at one time through mass media, the harm of joke-stealing increased. Now, comics informally enforce a norm of authorial protection much stricter than anything copyright law allows. Yet they never go to court — the authors could not locate a single copyright case involving comics over joke theft.
Great paper. Larry Solum liked it too. So “download it while it’s hot.”