On Tuesday a jury in Los Angeles found Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams guilty of copyright infringement and ordered them to pay $7.3 million for copying elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” for Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.” Quickly after this story broke, there was a flurry of speculation about what this means for music – does it establish an overly tight interpretation of what it means to copy a song? Does it eliminate the grey area between referencing or being influenced by a previous artist and claiming their ideas as your own?
The whole thing made me think of this Washington Post article by Serious Journalist and Twitter-style ironyman Luke O’Neil about the huge proliferation of joke theft online and the lack of anyone giving a shit. Basically, plagiarism is seen as a career-killing offense in politics, academia, journalism – and now, it seems, music. But in comedy it’s just seen as a gauche lack of respect that the market will sort out. “Oh that guy steals jokes, blacklist him from your show.” It seems ridiculous to imagine even the highest profile case of joke theft, a Louis CK/Dane Cook or Joe Rogan/Carlos Mencia, ending up in court.
Why is this? Even aside from legal concerns (nobody copyrights jokes like they do songs or screenplays) and practical ones (a “joke” is a smaller thing than a whole song is and it’s understood in other media that the actors/singers didn’t write the words they’re saying/singing/etc., creating the need to be clear about it) the notion of authorship really does seem especially unimportant in comedy.
This seems weird. After all, it is really dishonorable to be caught stealing jokes. That is like the cardinal sin. But what’s the standard reaction when someone steals your joke? “Oh I don’t need it anyways, I can write five more. Ain’t no problem for me. Sucks for that guy that he needed to steal it.” I think that’s largely because we’re all doing this for free. If someone was stealing my ideas and making money off them, that would be different. But everyone’s just stealing jokes to make their buddies laugh!! Right?!?!
Folks, if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you: a bridge to Realityville, population: a lot. And you can test drive…I mean test by driving ON it…before you buy it, because you gotta see…uhh…just keep reading.
Lots of people are stealing your jokes and making lots of money off them. Jon King says he makes $500 a day running “parody accounts” on Twitter that “repackage” (read: take) jokes from other accounts. There are tons of these: @WilllllyWonka, @ozchrisrock, @OMGFacts, @AllFunnyMemes, @YaBoyBillNye, the list goes on. As O’Neil points out in that Washington Post article, they all have “business email” addresses in their bios because after they grow the account to a certain point, they can sell it. And at least one person, Josh Ostrovsk, @thefatjewish on Instagram, proudly puts his face (and funny haircut!!!) on his plagiarism. His M.O. is to screenshot other people’s jokes right where it cuts their name off, so it’s not explicitly saying he wrote it, but, hey look at this, his traffic is going up and now he has 3.4 million followers and is getting TV deals and stuff.
People don’t care about this because they don’t know it’s going on. You’d have to be a total asshole to steal stuff everyone thinks is free. Guess what: there are a lot of total assholes. And when your whole business model relies on stealing content like this, I can’t help but notice parallels between the kind of predatory attitudes of those bands that stole Robert Johnson’s songs, or pharmaceutical companies who patent medicine that’s just been given away for free in Latin American countries for generations, or even, as this Deadspin Concourse article points out, the Walt Disney Company, which made a ton of money by adapting public domain fairy tales and copyrighting them. There’s a long history of assholes taking advantage of the naïve to make big money.
Maybe that’s making too big a deal about “just sharing jokes online.” But that point itself maybe speaks to a larger reason why nobody really cares about plagiarism in comedy. Everyone thinks they can do it – and they’re not wrong! Everyone does make jokes. It’s more like cooking than it is sculpting or playing the violin; everyone cooks at least sometimes, it’s part of life. Comedy is like an ingredient to life, not a thing in itself, really. I always kind of cringe at “Comedy” being a genre of movie because, well, every movie has comedy in it. Raging Bull has some great jokes in it. There is definitely a weirdness to separating Comedy as a thing in itself.
And maybe because of that, or maybe for other reasons, comedy performances require a kind of connection with the audience that no other artistic thing does. For whatever reason, one huge characteristic of standup and improv especially is making the audience think on some level you’re just thinking of all this stuff on the spot. With improv that’s obviously the whole point. But with standup too, the whole work of doing standup is making it look like you’re just thinking of all that stuff up on stage. It’s supposed to feel like a conversation, except just one side is talking. That’s why there are hecklers and stuff. There are no hecklers at the Metropolitan Opera.
I think this all boils down to unpretentiousness. You can’t laugh at something pretentious. It’s just not fun. The point of the opera or a fancy play or an art museum isn’t really to have fun. It’s to like learn something or get “cultured” or to “appreciate” some…uhh…something. And that requires this distance between that audience that is just antithetical comedy.
Take for example, this (attributed!!!) tweet about a glove that fell on the ground at the Met. Everyone is in Art Mode, so there are all these people just standing around looking at it, Appreciating it.
On the other side of that spectrum is the hugely, obviously successful and accomplished comedians who get heckled every night. It seems like comedy, I tell ya, it gets no respect.
So yeah, people don’t get all proprietary about their jokes and content online because it’s just not funny/chill to make a big deal about it. But they probably should make a big deal about it, because lots of assholes are stealing their intellectual property and profiting off of it. So, like, tell all your friends that all those parody accounts do nothing but steal jokes.
Also, I don’t think a bunch of unemployed comedians on Twitter have as much money as Marvin Gaye’s kids.