Did You Hear The One About The Comedian And The Copyright Law?

Ponder the difference between the comedian and the musician. Both create and perform works to entertain audiences, but they go about protecting that work in different ways. The notoriously litigious music industry often resorts to the legal system to protect itself from pirates and samplers. But comedians don’t. So why hasn’t the joke well gone dry?

That’s the question discussed in a forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press called “Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy.” Written by two professors from the University of Virginia School of Law, the book offers a case study in the axiom that more intellectual property rights aren’t always better intellectual property rights, reports Ars Technica.

For comedians, ripping off a joke is a major sin, but such cases almost never end up in court. Federal court, where copyright cases are heard, is too expensive to be worth it. Besides, copyright law only protects the exact expression, not the idea, so rip-off artists who add some different details are free to do so.

This hasn’t led to a dearth of jokes. Instead, comedians use social norms rather than law to enforce their joke rights, and these social IP norms have actually been part of the process that shifted comedy away from one-liners and “rim shot” jokes to today’s long-form observational comedy.

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