Why comedy copyright is no laughing matter

Have you heard the one about the social media platform that started taking down jokes? No, really! In case you missed it, Twitter has started to remove jokes that are reported as plagiarised from others in an attempt to protect the copyright of comedy. So, as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival comes to a close, we take a little look at why Twitter has taken this decision and why copyright matters to comedians.

The appearance of “this tweet has been withheld”

twitter birdLike many other social media platforms, reporting breaches of copyright is left to users rather than something that is actively policed by Twitter itself. Twitter’s own regulations state: “Twitter will respond to reports of alleged copyright infringement, such as allegations concerning the unauthorized use of a copyrighted image as a profile photo, header photo, or background, allegations concerning the unauthorized use of a copyrighted video or image uploaded through our media hosting services, or tweets containing links to allegedly infringing materials.”

Twitter has a ready means of attribution built into the network. If you read a statement you agree with or a funny joke, you can retweet the original or compose a tweet quoting it within the body of your own. It must be doubling frustrating therefore to see a witty Twitter status that you’ve penned being claimed by someone else and this is exactly what kept happening to freelance writer Olga Lexell @runolgarun. After seeing her own work claimed by others time and time again Olga complained about the infringement of her intellectual property to Twitter and asked that the copies be removed. Soon, where the offending tweets had once been the message  “this tweet is being withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder” appeared instead.

In a tweet Olga explained how sending a complaint to Twitter resulted in the tweets being withheld. She said: “I simply explained to Twitter that as a freelance writer I make my living writing jokes (and I use some of my tweets to test out jokes in my other writing). I then explained that as such, the jokes are my intellectual property, and that the users in question did not have my permission to repost them without giving me credit.”

Some current comedy copyright controversies

It’s not just Olga who is unhappy with the volume of joke theft on Twitter nor is the problem restricted to this social media platform exclusively. High profile cases currently gaining attention include the case of Josh Otrovsky aka the Fat Jew – a reporter who has been accused of borrowing other people’s jokes from Twitter to post on Instagram. US comedian Conan O’Brien is the subject of a lawsuit that accuses him of using jokes on his show that first appeared on the blog and social media profiles of writer Robert Alexander Kaseberg of San Diego. Kaseberg is suing for breach of copyright, though the case has not yet been heard.

The impact of copyright breaches on comedy performances

While an obvious concern for writers who have their comedy material stolen is the lack of recompense for their efforts, another perhaps less immediate impact is on the effectiveness of stand up comedy. Audience members who pay to see a show may be tempted to tweet one liners or may even video sections of the show and share them on YouTube or Periscope. This practice could in turn reduce the number of people paying to attend shows or impact on how the joke is received by future audiences – social media sharing could mean that comedian gets fewer laughs. Back in September 2008 comedian Lee Hurst was fined £60 for smashing the mobile phone of an audience member he suspected of filming his show.

Protecting your humour

If you plan to make money from joke writing or stand up comedy the best way to safeguard against plagiarism is to keep a record of your writing, preferably electronically so that you have evidence of when jokes have been created. It could be considered that social media is forcing comedians to customise each show further, adding ad-libs to maintain the freshness of performance and give something new for each audience.

Are you a writer who needs copyright advice? Our team can advise on how to pro-actively protect your work as well as offering help with prosecutions for infringement of your rights.