Intellectual property is a complicated thing, especially in the world of comedy. With cultural trends being what they are, two different comedians can reach similar punchlines without any knowledge of the others work. However, there are still accusations of joke theft — Louis C.K.’s latest hosting spot on SNL and some of Amy Schumer’s acts have been the most recently questioned — with the latest being leveled against Conan O’Brien and his writing crew.
Freelance joke writer Robert “Alex” Kaseberg has brought a suit against the writers of Conan (and the man himself), claiming that they stole five jokes from him in 2014-2015 (including one in very poor taste of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition). U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino accepted that there was a possible case surrounding only three of the jokes, however, she was inclined to agree with the defendants that “the jokes in contention used facts and commonly used expressions and were undeserving of extensive protection.”
“Facts, of course, are not protected by copyright. And although the punchlines of the jokes are creative, they are nonetheless constrained by the limited number of variations that would (1) be humorous (2) as applied to the specific facts articulated in each joke’s previous sentence and (3) provide mass appeal. This merits only thin protection. The standard for infringement must therefore also be some form of ‘virtual identity.'”