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Joke stealing is no laughing matter

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When the self-titled internet comedian the Fat Jewish, aka Josh Ostrovsky, got picked up by a talent agency, people took note.

“This guy basically built a career around aggregating/stealing, depending on how you want to call it, other people’s content … often without attribution,” says Marketplace’s Adriene Hill. “The news that he got picked up by CAA sort of made everybody’s head explode a little bit.”

The larger issue around this is whether or not jokes fall under copyright law.

Hill asked New York University professor Christopher Sprigman about the copyright laws regarding jokes. He told her that “a comedian who’s interested in lifting a joke could possibly just lift the underlying comedic idea and express it somewhat differently and escape the reach of the copyright law.”

Hill found that comedians do a good job of policing themselves. She says that if the comedy community sees someone stealing jokes, that person is essentially shunned.

But online is another world, Hill says. Some people will tweet another person’s joke, gain followers and make money, an Austin comedian tells her. In those cases, advertisers don’t care about that informal code, they care about how many followers are next to a person’s name.

Comedy writer Mara Quinta, who has been outspoken about joke stealing, thinks change will come from public opinion — that advertisers won’t want to be associated with someone tweeting another’s work.

“If we take away the financial incentive, this becomes a much smaller problem,” Quinta tells her.

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