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Stop me if you've heard this one: two guys walk onto a plane...
Actually, I read that one on Twitter. At least, that's what one long-time joke writer is saying about a joke Conan O'Brien told on-air, allegedly the same night the writer posted it online. Coincidence? Or yet another incidence of joke theft in the modern world?
Robert Kaseberg is suing Conan, TBS, and others for lifting jokes Kaseberg posted on his blog and Twitter. On January 14, Conan quipped about a near-empty flight: "On Monday, a Delta flight from Cleveland to New York took off with just two passengers. Yet somehow, they spent the whole flight fighting over the armrest."
The only problem was Kaseberg apparently posted this on his blog the same day: "A Delta flight this week took off from Cleveland to New York with just two passengers. And they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight." Kaseberg is also accusing Conan and his team of stealing three other jokes, and is demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
You can copyright a joke, and you don't need to register the copyright to receive copyright protections. And just because you say it on Twitter, that doesn't mean it's now in the public domain and anyone can reuse or republish it.
At the same time, Twitter has been cracking down on joke theft. The social media platform will withhold or remove tweets that are alleged to infringe on copyright, generally in an effort to avoid infringement liability itself. (There is also a process for re-posting removed tweets and letting the two parties settle it themselves.)
In this case, it may be impossible to prove that Conan, or one of his staff writers, stole Kaseberg's joke. As comedy writer and journalist Larry Getlen told NPR, "[I]f you are a topical comedian and you write a joke about a news story that had gotten some attention in the past 24 to 36 hours, there is a very good chance that some staffer at one of these shows wrote a similar joke."
Andy Richter, Conan's longtime buddy/sidekick/co-host, weighed in as well (though more sarcastically): "There's no possible way more than one person could have concurrently had these same species-elevating insights! THESE TAKES ARE TOO HOT!"
We'll see what the cooler heads in California federal court have to say on the matter.
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