On Stealing Jokes (Guest Voice)
On Stealing Jokes
by Linda Perret
There has been a lot of controversy recently about stealing jokes. I’m not going to get into who is right and who is wrong. Or who stole what from whom. That’s really for the players involved to sort out.
But this public exchange has sparked quite a few discussions in the comedy world. These discussions generally center around one thing – how to protect your material.
Let’s be honest, it’s very possible for two writers to write the exact same joke. Anyone who has sat down at a Perret Family Dinner knows this first hand. A subject comes arises and two of us will pipe up with an the same joke response – usually it’s me and Dad that voice the same line…and then it is usually followed by Mom rolling her eyes.
This also happens with writers who have never met. There are days when I’ll hear an item on the news that sparks the creative juices and I’ll write lines on whatever that topic is. Then that night I’ll watch one of the late night talk shows and hear my lines on air. My lines never made it off my desk so no one stole them. I didn’t hear their lines before I wrote mine so I didn’t steal them either. It’s just as the old saying goes, “great minds think alike.” There’s nothing malicious involved and I cross the line off my list and move on.
Every comedy writer has had the above experience and knows that it happens. But I’m not naïve enough to believe that “borrowing” material never happens. It does. When I started I submitted lines to a well-known performer who used the lines and then come back with, “These lines were good enough to use but not good enough to pay for.” I don’t think he was a thief so much as just plain cheap. Bottom line, I stopped submitting material to him.
But it was a valuable lesson. Why? I knew my lines were good enough to use. For a new writer that’s huge. That gave me the encouragement I needed to send lines to other people…those who actually did pay.
A lot of writers are now advocating copyrighting each joke. I can’t necessarily get on that bandwagon for a number of reasons.
1. It may limit the people who will look at your material. The buyer may not want to take the risk that he already has a joke similar to the ones you are submitting. It’s easier to send the material back unread then to take the chance.
2. Enforcing the copyright can be time consuming. If you do copyright a line and someone uses it what are you going to do? Are you going to track them down and go after them legally? That takes time and money. Time and money that you can be devoting to your craft.
3. The copyright may be meaningless. To enforce a copyright you have to prove that the piece is original to you. With jokes that can be a tough order for the reasons we talked about above. Then you also have to demonstrate that the person was aware of your work and lifted it. That also can be tough to do.
4. Ideas are not copyrightable. Often we will get people who will send us an idea for a joke. Then when the joke is written want to claim ownership of it. I liken it to me saying, “I think there should be a cure for cancer.” And then when someone actually does it, I demand the credit for it because, “It was my idea.”
There are times when a copyright is warranted. If you have a fully developed monologue, a book, script or large collection of work, then yes, that may be worth taking the steps to protect. As for individual jokes on various topics, it may not be worth the effort.
If by chance someone does steal a line from you, take it as a sign that you are headed in the right direction. As a comedy writer your asset to a buyer isn’t in the lines you wrote yesterday but rather in your ability to write lines tomorrow, and the day after, and so on. Develop those skills.
Linda Perret is an award winning comedy writer. She followed in her legendary comedy-writer father Gene Perrett’s funny footsteps and has been involved in various aspects of comedy writing since she sold her first professional joke in 1990. She has supplied material to top comedians over the years, and has written comedy for the business world, addingf humor to executive speeches and fun to corporate award ceremonies. She was a staff writer for the television special celebrating Hope’s 90th birthday, Bob Hope—the First 90 Years. That show won an Emmy Award as best musical variety show, and Linda and her fellow staff writers were nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award for their work on that script. She and her father run a legendary website for comedy writers and aspiring comedy writers HERE.
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