Sunday, August 06, 2006

Heard the one about intellectual property? [Jokes and IP]

COMEDIANS taking part in this year's Festival Fringe are to be offered classes on how to stop their jokes being stolen by rivals.

A leading London law firm is travelling to the city to advise up-and-coming talents on guarding against plagiarism.
It follows a growing number of disputes between high-profile comedians in recent years, including an Edinburgh stand-up who demanded a written apology from comedian Dara O'Briain last year after claiming that O'Briain stole his joke and performed it on TV show Have I Got News For You.
Among the firm's top tips in the fight against "intellectual property theft" is that every comedian should insert their copyright on to a written copy of everything they perform. It means that should their own original material be copied they can take the offender to court because they can prove that they had it copyrighted first. Lawyers Hill Dickinson will be holding the "entertainment surgeries" on two weekends during the Festival, August 19/20 and August 26/27, at the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square.

It will be sending intellectual law specialists to the venue to give the free advice and will also be advising comedians on what to look for in their first contract offer and how to pitch ideas to people without them being stolen.
Charlotte Harris, a barrister and intellectual property specialist at Hill Dickinson, said that not enough people are taking steps to ensure they have a legal right of ownership of their own material.
She said: "Often comedians in particular find that once they've performed a script or a joke it is in the public arena and their ownership of it has gone. But there is a need for comedians, like anyone else, to protect the work that they do and claim it as their own. To do that, they need to do something that proves that they have created it before someone else has.
"What people often don't realise is that they can copyright something quite easily by putting the copyright logo on to their script and writing their name and the date that it was written. It's not like a trademark - you don't need to send it away and register it or anything like that."
Ms Harris says that at the moment many people do not take action against joke theft and instead just accept it as a part of the industry.
One man who didn't was Mac Star, a regular at The Stand comedy club in York Place, who wrote to Dara O'Briain's management company after seeing a joke he claims he wrote performed on Have I Got News For You.
He said: "People come to Scotland and steal jokes from comedians here. I hope this will make people recognise it's going on and make it stop."
Although no precedent of a court case is known of, Ms Harris says that asserting their copyright on a script can allow the writer a strong position to write to a comedian and tell them to stop using the joke or face prosecution under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.
She added: "In my experience, as soon as you start exerting your legal right people will back off. And no professional wants to be known as someone who plagiarises."
But Tommy Sheppard, director of The Stand, is not sure the classes will be of any real benefit. He said: "It seems like a daft concept - the days of 'an Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman' jokes are long gone.
"It's all about the story nowadays and comedians tend to weave a story around the audience, not stand up and tell joke after joke.
"You can't copyright that kind of story. And when you perform it you need to accept that it becomes common property anyway - you can't set ownership of it."
THE comedy fraternity is not all a barrel of laughs if these joke-theft claims are anything to go by:
• Edinburgh comedian Mac Star demanded an apology and payment of around £1500 for a joke he claimed Dara O'Briain used on Have I Got News For You, whose production manager insisted they didn't steal the joke.
The joke went: "Wouldn't Hitler have been crap at the game paper, rock and scissors?" (He then mimes the game before breaking into Hitler's salute, which is like the symbol for paper.)
"Winston Churchill should have challenged him to a game." (He then holds his arm in the air mimicking Churchill's V-sign victory salute, which looks like scissors, which beats paper.)
• Jim Davidson also denied stealing fellow comedian Jimmy Carr's joke and refused to give an apology. Carr then consulted lawyers about further action.
• Entertainer Bob Monkhouse was the victim of a different kind of joke theft when his book of jokes was stolen. A BBC executive was arrested in connection with the theft, in 1996, and a man who eventually returned them got a reward of £10,000 from Monkhouse.

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