Abused for taking on the joke thieves

Comics vs the internet

Comedians who’ve had their jokes stolen by internet plagiarists are being threatened when they try to protect their material.

Websites such as Sickipedia invite contributors to add gags to their database with little or no checks on whether they are original, leading to some stand-ups being accused of stealing jokes from the web – when actually they wrote them.

Comics who have spotted their material from their sets on Sikipedia – which has previously published a book of non-attributed jokes – and asked for its removal have subsequently been subject to torrents of abuse from site users.

Stand-up Gary Delaney persuaded site administrator Rob Manuel to remove dozens of his one-liners pilfered by the site – but when they were replaced by the message ‘joke removed due to a copyright complaint by Gary Delaney’ and a link to his website – he received abuse on the forums. One poster suggested a manhunt to kill him, another wrote: ‘Just killed you on wikipedia you cunt’.

‘I’ve had shit from Sickipedia users annoyed that I’ve taken their joke down,’ Delaney said: ‘People saying they hate me. But I don’t care anymore.”

Last week, the site finally made concessions to the authors of original material, allowing them to be credited – although the onus remains on someone to spot a stolen joke and make the proper attribution.

Manuel said. ‘The whole point of the new attribution is to allow people to say "Hey that's my joke, credit would be nice’ without getting abused for their trouble.’

The site – which claims to be ‘building the world’s best collection of sick jokes’ – has previously profited from collating the work of others.

Ironically, one of the direct beneficiaries of Sickipedia’s activities is media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who recently described search engines such as Google as ‘content kleptomaniacs’ for building a business off the back of his news empire’s content.

Manuel compiled and published The B3ta Bumper Book of Sick Jokes in 2006 through Friday Books, now owned by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation. Even a cursory skim of the book, sold on the high street but available for free here , reveals an unattributed joke from Jimmy Carr’s 2005 Stand Up DVD and a version of Woody Allen’s famous line from Annie Hall to not ‘knock masturbation, [because] it’s sex with someone I love’. Ironically, Manuel once posted a video accusing Coca-Cola of ‘ripping off the little guy’, highlighting similarities between a music video entitled Ninja by the artist Joel Veitch and an Argentinian Coke ad.

In a further twist, Sickipedia’s administrators will be compering their own comedy night this Tuesday in Shoreditch in East London.

In its guidelines, Sickipedia says only that it would be ‘good’ to attribute jokes to their original sources. In reality, pseudonymous contributors routinely repeat jokes verbatim or with minor tweaks from professional comics.

Despite the inability of Sickipedia’s administrators to properly assign authorship, the site retains posts accusing comedians such as Frankie Boyle and Gary Delaney of stealing from it.

The site’s guidelines also state: ‘Bear in mind that we pretty much all have access to a television set and have probably all seen every episode of Mock the Week (so yes, Frankie Boyle, sometimes you should credit us)’. This line was removed after the first version of this article was published on Chortle.

Delaney first complained in March of last year. After 18 months, he succeeded in getting 34 jokes removed in September, although more have subsequently been posted. And Sikipedia is not the only place on the internet where gags are reproduced, making it difficult for comedians to know where their material is going.

Delaney became aware of the problem while performing. ‘A couple of jokes, I can tell from the audience reaction have very quickly started to get around,’ he says. ‘A joke I had about the rape advice line, I could tell that sometimes the audience knew it before I did the punchline, when I hadn’t even been doing it that long.

Scottish stand-up Teddy also complained to Sikipedia when he discovered 17 successive jokes lifted from his blog – but Manuel’s fellow administrator Paul Curry told him to expect abuse for asking for their removal. ‘Expect angry emails about this,’ he said. ‘Gary Delaney can testify to how much of a pain in the arse Sickipedians can be about removals. On your head be it.’

Unsurprisingly, Teddy has been a target for abuse on the website’s forums. But a further concern for him is that ‘the guy who liberated my stuff is posting horrible ”Paki” gags in between my material’.

“I think they view me as some kind of corporate monster trying to clamp down on the hippyish ideals of the internet, whereas in fact it’s completely the reverse,’ Teddy claims. ‘I’m posting these jokes for free on Twitter and my blog. The whole culture of Twitter is that we retweet and repost stuff that we like, but it’s attributed. It also means that people go “Ah, I like that joke, I’ll have a look at what else he’s done” and it creates a community spirit.

Delaney adds: ‘There’s a guy called FunnyJoker on Twitter with over 60,000 followers, and I’ve seen jokes from my club set on his page that I’ve never posted being retweeted everywhere, all without credit to me. It’s sped up the whole process by which jokes are distributed to a massive degree.

‘If I post a joke on Twitter, I can’t get annoyed if people post that round because I’ve already done it on a public forum. But the jokes from my club set are how I make my living, my best and biggest jokes. It used to be the case that a comic’s set would last decades. But now I’ve got jokes I wrote in May, June and July that aren’t working by October because they’ve been absolutely trashed around the internet.

‘I’m concerned about my debut Edinburgh show. A lot of the material will be quite well known and distributed, simply from me doing previews and trying it out. I don’t want reviewers seeing my show and thinking it’s full of old jokes.’

However, he welcomed Sikipedia’s recent change of heart to ensure he was credited for his gags.

He said: ‘We’ve finally reached an agreement, after a bit of give and take from both sides. While I’ll never be particularly happy about other people putting my jokes on the internet, the reality is it’s inevitable therefore we needed to reach some sort of accommodation.

‘If people see an attributed joke of mine on there, then maybe they can enjoy the gag, know who originally wrote it, and I sell a few more tickets in Edinburgh.’

Teddy added: 'I welcome Sikipedia's change in attitude – it's a move in the right direction.'

British copyright offers scant protection. Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, a joke is automatically protected by copyright at the moment of its expression, provided the comedian has used original skill to create it. Judgement rests on whether a ‘substantial part’ of the original work is reproduced, so slightly rewriting gags offers little defence.

‘It’s an insight into ordinary punters who aren’t writing jokes and what they think constitutes one,’ reflects Teddy, who found the wording of his plagiarised gags tweaked and re-posted. ‘It’s a bit like stealing someone’s car, putting a dent in it, then saying this isn’t your car, this one’s got a dent in it. Because all they’ve done is make my existing joke rubbish.’

Unfortunately, copyright doesn’t subsist in spoken word unless the work is recorded, ‘in writing or otherwise’". So any stand-up seeking to establish themselves as the author of their own jokes should take the precaution of committing them to an independently verifiable and dated record, whether electronically or using the age old method of posting them to their home address.

What’s more, copyright only protects the expression of an idea rather than the idea itself – it would be extremely difficult to disprove that two individuals hadn’t come up with a joke’s concept simultaneously and independently. So while uniquely expressive comics like Victor Borge, Ross Noble or Hans Teeuwen are effectively protected from plagiarism by the distinctiveness and inherent difficulty of reproducing their acts, one-liner comics such as Delaney and Stewart Francis are more vulnerable.

Canadian Francis recalls ‘an incident in the States where a magazine would pay $25 for a joke and my jokes just kept popping up. Finally, I had to approach the editor. They recognised they were my jokes because the timing was obvious – I’d done a national TV show in America the month before.

‘It’s hugely frustrating, because when I do those jokes there will sometimes be a misconception of “Oh, I read that in a magazine’. And while I appreciate people like these jokes and they’re putting them on T-shirts, if they’re selling them, how can that person not know what they’re doing is wrong?’

Fellow one-liner merchant Tim Vine famously fell victim to accusations of plagiarism when an email of his best jokes were widely circulated and erroneously attributed to Tommy Cooper.

In an article published in December last year, US law professors Chris Sprigham and Dotan Oliar emphasised that although existing copyright law offers virtually no protection, they comedy circuit tends to be self-policing, as gag theft is so frowned upon.

However, new media could help ‘patent’ a comedian’s routine. Teddy can point to the date stamp on his blog as clear evidence that he was the original creator of his jokes.

David Goodbrand, head of intellectual property and technology at law firm Burness LLP, said: ‘If a site publishes copyright material without making the necessary checks as to the ownership of that material and without acknowledging the author of the work, then they are susceptible to a copyright infringement claim

‘The onus, however, is on the author of the work to raise this claim. Like all intellectual property rights, the protection that copyright affords authors and artists is only as strong as their willingness and ability to legally enforce their rights.

‘A comedian could try in a settlement claim to negotiate a licence fee, a sum of money to compensate them for use of their work, or they could even try to get a book pulped. If you’re an unknown comedian, I would imagine you wouldn’t want to suffer all the negative PR associated with taking the latter course of action.’

Justin Moorhouse was surprised to find several of his jokes attributed in the recently published The Wit and Wisdom of the North by Rosemarie Jarski. Although a few isolated quotes are deemed fair usage, he was oblivious to the publication until he came across it in a bookshop last week. Legally, Moorhouse wouldn’t seem to have any recourse. But how many of his fellow Northern wits are also unaware that their wisdom is earning someone else money?

In January last year, Jay Leno settled a lawsuit filed against Judy Brown, a Los Angeles-based comedy journalist and the author of a series of joke book compilations that he successfully claimed ripped off material from both The Tonight Show and his stand-up routines.

Leno and his fellow plaintiffs, including comics such as Rita Rudner, Kathleen Madigan and Jimmy Brogan, claimed that the books were tantamount to copyright, trademark infringement and false endorsement as each stolen line was attributed to its creator. Brown's publishers agreed to cease distribution, manufacture and sale of the books and paid an undisclosed settlement to the comedians, which they donated to charity.

‘The Jay Leno case is interesting,’ concludes Goodbrand. ‘Comedians could certainly take the same kind of copyright infringement action in the UK against publishers both offline and online. A case taken forward on behalf of several comedians as opposed to one would no doubt lessen the potential impact of any negative PR.’

Article by: Jay Richardson

Published: 9 Nov 2009

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