Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Prof. Sprigman in the NYT

Steal any good jokes lately?  The subject as provided a fertile area of exploration for Professor Chris Sprigman (who studied the matter with Dotan Oliar in 2008), and now, along with UCLA Professor Kal Raustiala, have a piece published on the Freaknomics blog of the New York Times
Late one Saturday night in February 2007, a stand-up comic named Joe Rogan decided to take the law into his own hands.  Rogan, a well-known comedian, was on stage at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s most important comedy clubs.  For weeks, Rogan had been furious over reports from fellow comedians that an even more famous stand-up, Carlos Mencia, had stolen a joke from one of Rogan’s friends, a relatively obscure comedian named Ari Schaffer.  Rogan spotted Mencia in the audience, and he blew up.  Slamming Mencia as “Carlos Menstealia,” Rogan accused his rival of joke thievery.  Mencia rushed the stage to defend himself, and there began a long, loud, and profane confrontation.
The Rogan/Mencia blow-up was caught on video, and quickly went viral (caution: extreme language).  In the course of a rambling, high-volume duel of insults, Rogan laid out the details of Mencia’s alleged stealing.  Mencia angrily denied stealing, and shot back that Rogan was a “whiny [expletive]” motivated by jealousy. Eventually, Ari Schaffer himself jumped on stage to support Rogan. The audience divided into camps, with most supporting Rogan. The possibility of violence hung in the air.
Eventually, the comics left the stage, but that didn’t end matters.  Rogan continued to press his case in radio interviews, and in the following weeks a number of other comics joined the feud, most siding with Rogan. Rogan also posted a clip on YouTube citing examples of what he took to be Mencia’s thievery.  Several versions of this short video have been viewed more than five million times.
The last number should catch your attention.  Five million views for a video of a public argument between two comedians.  What’s going on here?
Sprigman and Raustiala tell us, below the fold.  All and all, it's an interesting article, although those who were hoping that Sprigman would bust out his guitar at the end of his post will be sorely disappointed.
At first glance, this may seem like a nasty but ultimately meaningless showbiz feud.  But it’s more than that. In fact, Rogan’s decision to confront Mencia is an example of what stand-up comedians do all the time.  Comedians have rules of their own about joke-stealing.  And they impose their own punishments on thieves.  The Rogan/Mencia incident was different in one way, however – it was public.  Typically, comedians enforce their private rules behind closed doors.  But whether public or private, comedians’ determination to deal with joke thieves directly and informally, rather than resorting to the law, is noteworthy.
Why do comedians do this?  In part, because they live in a world where intellectual property law – in particular, copyright – does not help them much when a rival comedian steals a joke.  In theory, copyright law applies to jokes. But in the real world, lawsuits are simply too expensive and uncertain to work as an effective response to joke stealing.  Comics don’t see the benefit in spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars as a response to a rival’s lifting of a joke – even a very good one.  And even if a comic were angry enough to be tempted, there is a daunting legal barrier to a successful suit. Copyright protects original expression, but not underlying ideas.  But often a great joke is built on a funny idea, which can be expressed in more than one way.  So comics who “re-write” others’ jokes rather than simply appropriate them wholesale are, as far as current copyright law goes, perfectly safe.
Keep reading at
The Vigilantes of Comedy [NYTimes - Freakonomics Blog]
To Catch a (Joke) Thief: Two Professors Study Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy [UVa Today]
Professor Chris Sprigman: First Tenure, Then a Grammy?


Anonymous said...

Speaking of intellectual property, I wonder how the New York Times feels about you republishing an entire article/post on your blog.

Rule 12 (f) said...

Didn't re-post the entire article, or even half of it. To read the second half, you need to go the website. I would think NYT would be happy that some traffic is being driven to their site (to the extent they care at all, which they probably don't).

Seems like fair use to us.