In our last post, we discussed the complexities of copyright protection on social media sites and on the Internet generally. Writers and comedians frequently communicate with fans through shorts quips on Twitter, and the material in these tweets is sometimes redistributed without attribution to the original author.
That scenario was just one of many examples we could have used. As coincidence would have it, however, a high-profile lawsuit making similar allegations was recently filed against a well-known comedian and talk show host. According to news sources, Conan O'Brien and Turner Broadcasting System are being sued for copyright infringement by a man who claims that four jokes he posted on Twitter were later used on O'Brien's show without permission and apparently without attribution.
At this point, it is unclear whether the plaintiff has a strong case. On one hand, it should be easy in a case like this to document when the plaintiff's jokes were posted and how they were worded. They could then be compared to video of what appeared on "Conan."
On the other hand, at least one of the jokes allegedly stolen could reasonably have been written by two different people independently. The premise was a news story about a commercial flight that only had two passengers on it. In the joke(s), both the plaintiff and O'Brien quipped that the passengers still managed to fight over use of the armrest.
Most comedians take material-theft allegations very seriously, because even false allegations can hurt a comedian's credibility with fans. But here in California alone, there are likely thousands of writers creating time-sensitive jokes based on the same small set of current events. At some point, unintended duplication may be inevitable.