Late funny man Milton Berle was so notorious for lifting jokes from fellow comedians that he was dubbed the "thief of bad gag" in the industry. But he's far from the only culprit. Conan O'Brien, Chris Rock, Carlos Mencia, George Lopez and D.L. Hughley - all have been accused of hijacking jokes from their competitors. Such accusations against working comedians, whether famous or obscure, typically are true to some degree.
While plagiarism of any sort is no laughing matter, many standup comedians argue that it's simply part of the job. Patton Oswald conceded such in a blog post he penned titled A Closed Letter to Myself about Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes - a post that garnered lots of media coverage and sparked much debate.
"Well, I stole a joke," Patton candidly admitted. "Not consciously. I heard something I found hilarious, mis-remembered it as an inspiration of my own, and then said it onstage. And got big laughs."
Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about standup joke stealing - at least not in the courts. Copyright law defends the expression of an idea in a fixed form, but not the idea itself. So, if another comedian tells your joke using different words, it's likely not something you'll be able to defend. Instead, the industry applies its own consequence on offending comedians, including hits to their professional and personal reputations and blacklisting from performance venues.
But if you're aiming for a career in comedy, don't let the news hold you back. It is possible to build a comedy career and have your material protected. When written in books or film and television scripts, comedic material is in a fixed and fully copyrightable form. Protect your original works by contacting an experienced copyright attorney with Orlando's Daniel Law Offices at 1-866-37PATENT or via our online contact form.