Does the gift economy or fair use apply to comedy? Jay Leno sues Judy Brown.

Jay Leno, NBC studios, Rita Rudner and some other well-known comics have sued Judy Brown over her compilation joke books. Judy is well-known in the comedy scene as a teacher, but more as the writer of these books. She often posts to lists I’m on asking for jokes. She offers credit in the books when she does this and the chance to be then able to promote yourself in your bio as “published in ” Joke Soup or whateer book it is she’s writing. This also means you can say “xx ‘s work has appeared in blah blah book alongside Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce…” etc you get the point.

When I walked into an Urban Outfitters in Santa Barbara and saw her latest book I thought “why didn’t I get my stuff into her? I could have been in this book.”

This idea of advancing yourself by association is a whole other blog post. Living in a Google world is actually making this more important to many people as it’s how you are found. It’s something that start-ups do, bankers, lawyers, academics and comedians do it too.

Judy asks and credits somewhat-known, lesser-known and unknown comics for submissions and credits them. I never knew how shw got the rest of her stuff. Leno’s suit claims she and others on her behalf go to clubs and crib their material without letting them know or getting permission. And she’s not paying anyone for their jokes.

I’m seeing mixed reaction on comedy listservs I’m on.

I’ve spent enough time around open source ideas and Cory Doctorow and friends that I generally like the life philosophy of giving and being open to have your stuff be out there. I’m far enough away from law school that my brain has thankfully forgotten all the details of the compilation law suits over the phone book and every detail of fair use exemptions to copyright (which allow for the free use of small elements of copyrighted stuff for things like journalistic and academic purposes).


1) the law as we have it now,
2) our ideas of how we want it to be, and
3) the practical realities of our lived lives that don’t really care much about the law

There’s a generally understood “code” among comics that you don’t steal another comics material (an unwritten law of kinds). It’s enforced by the respect or lack thereof of other comics. The truth as people like Cory have been talking about in tech circles and is true in comic circles as well, is that it is your ability to keep producing the material and the alignment of the material with you that creates your value. So “give away your information” and then people will pay for the hard bound copy or the DVD or to see you live. You’ll gain fans.

The practical reality of that for comics is a little tougher than coders. Any coder can get online and give their code away themselves. Comics haven’t been able to distribute themselves so easily, till the Net.

A joke, like a piece of code, can have a life of its own and get easily separated from its creator.
So is Judy brown just like a blogger? A curator of comedy? Someone who’s turning people on to comics? Is she any different than Myspace or Youtube if they decide to sell or license compilations of comedy submitted on their pages as “self-promotion” ?

I hate the feeling of being stingy. Of not sharing stuff. At the same time, comedy and perfoming have shown me that you get paid when you feel you deserve to get paid and make a decision not to do the work unless you get paid. You also need someone who wants your work, of course, but that emotional feeling of self-worth, that decision is at the crux of what turns someone who wants your work into a customer.

At a minimum, it seems like a choice the comics should get to make themselves. If Judy didn’t ask for permission from all the comics in the books, then I’m glad I wasn’t in them.

What else can comics learn from coders and vice versa? When do you get paid? How much do you “give away”? Is the law a pointless thing unless you have Jay Leno’s money anyway? I’d love to hear your thoughts.