A Serious Look At Joke Stealing
from the no-laughing-matter? dept
Last week’s story on Joe Rogan accusing Carlos Mencia of “stealing” jokes, followed by Mencia’s decision to claim Rogan’s video of the confrontation violated his copyrights certainly got plenty of attention, including quite an interesting discussion in the comments. One reader, Chris, pointed us to a very relevant story in Radar Magazine about the common practice of joke stealing (which includes a bit on Carlos Mencia, but also outs Robin Williams as being a notorious joke stealer as well). I was thinking about this over the weekend, when I was flipping through a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor for something totally unrelated to Techdirt. The book includes 640 jokes, which he readily admits to taking from others (at least the large majority of the jokes). He notes that he’s always gathered among friends and joke tellers and tried to collect better jokes and stories from others that he’d be able to reuse himself. As he notes as well, jokes are more than just the joke, but in how you tell it. Indeed, seeing comics steal others jokes is nothing new at all — and the fact is that some comics do tell jokes better than others. It’s like we’ve said in the past about plagiarism. Sometimes people make a big deal out of it, even though it’s used to make something entirely new and creative in its own way. Joke telling has everything to do with style and timing. So there’s a good argument to be made for the idea that maybe there isn’t anything wrong with taking someone else’s jokes and using them in your act. During the original confrontation between Rogan and Mencia, Rogan claims that if the same thing were happening with a different type of creative work, like a song or a book, there would be a ton of news about it — but with a joke, no one cares. Perhaps it’s not that no one cares, but that people just want to be entertained — and the person who first comes up with a joke isn’t necessarily as interesting as someone who is funniest with that joke.
Except… there’s a price to pay for it in terms of reputation. The backlash against Mencia is exactly that price. His reputation is taking a big hit, and he seems to keep digging himself a deeper hole by refusing to admit that he repurposed others’ jokes (and, in fact, is apparently still doing so). So, perhaps the real issue here is that this is an issue that can be solved by social norms, rather than laws like copyright. If you’re going to make use of someone else’s work, it’s going to come back and bite you if you’re not willing to admit it. There is still value in being a good joke teller, even if you’re using other people’s work — but if you keep pretending that you were also the creator of that work, it’s going to come back and hurt you in terms of your reputation. While that may have been less true in the past, thanks to things like the internet, it’s going to be increasingly easy to call out those who violate the social norms of taking credit for a joke they didn’t write.