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The intellectual property of jokes

Tobin Low Jan 21, 2016
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Allegations of joke stealing against comedian Amy Schumer hit the internet over the weekend with a since-deleted Twitter conversation between Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli, and Kathleen Madigan — Pescatelli being the most vocal about the accusations.

A viral video surfaced showing bits of various comedian’s acts, followed by similar jokes delivered by Schumer in her own act. As Buzzfeed writes, Schumer appeared on the Jim Norton Advice Show to deny the claims, as well as tweeting the following:

While the online discussion continues, several comics — including Liebman — have come to Schumer’s defense.

If you’re wondering how intellectual property works when it comes to jokes, it’s worth revisiting a conversation between Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal and Adriene Hill. Hill spoke with New York University professor Christopher Sprigman about the copyright laws regarding jokes, who said “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.”

But as Hill points out, the comedy community strongly polices itself, calling out or vouching for any comic accused of stealing.

In the case of social media star Josh Ostrovsky, known as the Fat Jewish, his blatant appropriation of others’ material caused an internet backlash that eventually forced him to attribute all of his borrowed material.

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