We need some protection...

Comedian Tony Cowards on joke copyright

With Peter Kay's new John Smith's advert using a gag familiar on the circuit, and Highlight Comedy's current £5,000 joke competition, the thorny issue of joke ownership looks set to rear it's ugly head again.

Comedians spend weeks, months or even years trying to perfect their jokes and yet with the advent of Twitter, youtube and texting they can be spread around the world in seconds.

A 20-minute club set, a comic’s means of earning a living, can potentially be rendered obsolete at the click of a mouse or the ‘send’ of an SMS message and yet, legally, he or she has no protection.

Fortunately, the comedy circuit is fairly good at policing itself, as comedians are fiercely protective over their own material. 

Joke theft on that level is, thankfully quite rare and is controlled through peer pressure and the fear of a tarnished reputation (although there have always been allegations this of big name acts ‘harvesting’ material from lower level acts) but non-comedians have no such worries.

In recent years prolific one-liner writers such as Gary Delaney and Teddy (and myself) have found jokes turning up on websites such as Sikipedia with monotonous regularity, sometimes properly credited but often just as anonymous, free-to-all, pub style jokes.

Unfortunately, unlike in the music industry, where sampling and outright theft is not only policed by the industry but also the courts, in the comedy world jokes are considered ‘ideas’ and, as such, are exempt from copyright law.

In theory one comic can steal an entire set from another, in the process earning hundreds or even thousands of pounds per performance and yet expect nothing more than tutting and the shaking of heads from other comics, including the one who originally wrote all the material.

Highlight – the comedy club operting in the old Jongleurs venues – is currently running a joke competition with a first prize of £5,000.

They have to be commended for promoting comedy but what worries me is that, potentially, the winner will earn £5,000 for merely repeating a joke that was written by someone else, a sum which would take even a top circuit comedian a long time to earn.

Not only that, but they will most likely make that particular joke unusable in a live environment as the assumption will be that the comic stole it from the competition! A situation that even Alanis Morrisette would realise is harshly ironic.

As a comic and a writer, my jokes are the tools of my trade. If they are taken away from me then my distinction from a bloke in a pub telling old barroom gags is seriously diminished. 

What the answer is, I really don't know, but it's a discussion that all in the industry need to have sooner rather than later, as technology increases the speed at which jokes can be disseminated comedians are going to struggle to keep up the production of new material.

As it is my only hope is to enter as many of my jokes into the competition as I can and keep my fingers crossed!

Published: 25 May 2010

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.