Author: Ishan Walia, RSG Media Marketing Intern, St Andrews University Student and part time stand up comedian.
Stand-up comedy has operated under different rules than the rest of the entertainment industry, with little infrastructure or copyright protection for comedians. However, with the rise of social media and user-generated content, established comedians are now complaining about the theft of their material and the lack of revenue protection. In this blog, we’ll explore the issue of intellectual property (IP) in stand-up comedy and why comedians need to adapt and actively install infrastructure to protect their IP. Otherwise, all power in the comedy industry will lie in the executive suites of media platforms like Netflix, Amazon, TikTok, and YouTube.
The entertainment industry has long viewed stand-up comedy as the black sheep of the family. Unlike rockstars and actors, stand-up comedians are not known for their physical attractiveness, glamorous lifestyles, or multi-million dollarbudgets. Most American comedians have day jobs, and those who make it big often transition to producing specials with streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon. While some comedians celebrate their status as rugged individual contributors to the media and entertainment industry, they are actually celebrating the lack of corporate control over the world of stand-up.
An Informal Code of Ethics
Actors and musicians need infrastructure to enable the performance of their craft. However, even the most well-known comedian headlining the Laugh Factory in New York, or the sophomore in college making jokes about their 8am lecture during amateur hour, are using the same equipment – a single microphone. A more significant similarity between the two sides of the comedic spectrum is copyright protection of their material. While an amateur singer can use a major recording artist’s material for non-revenue generating performances, as soon as money is in the mix, copyright law and IP protection come into the picture. Singer/songwriters have an additional layer of revenue protection as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) exists to ensure that the proper amount in royalties and other payments is reaching the singer/songwriter. However, an amateur comedian taking his first stage with a paying gig can repurpose any comedian’s material with little fear of a negative repercussion.
Why the difference? Historically, comedians have believed that their content was “owned” by them due to an unwritten code of ethics among the society of comedians. Calling a comedian a joke thief is the most egregious insult that one could leverage against them. It implies a sort of humor-related impotence on a very public platform, and fear of such public debasement has long deterred many comedians from daring to commit comedy’s greatest sin, ever since vaudeville’s habit of widespread joke replication was put to an end.
The Rise of Social Media
However, as social media has risen, so has a new boogeyman of the comedic world. Since stand-up comedy is now easily accessible to anyone with a microphone and recording device, there is no incentive for them to stick to the long-held informal comedian’s code of conduct. YouTube, TikTok, and other channels for user-generated content have thousands upon thousands of examples of amateurs reusing more famous comedian’s materials or comedic devices. Established comedians are now rightfully complaining about the infinite number of ways their jokes, or complete sets, can be recorded by someone else, posted on social media sites, and generate revenue for the IP thief. None of that revenue goes to the originator of the content.
The Need for Adaptation
As a comedian, I must say it feels borderline treasonous to be asking for more collaboration between any corporate entity and standup for the same reason many of my colleagues are resistant to this line of thinking. Since the days of Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedy has been an unregulated vocation, with many comedians sacrificing their careers to keep it that way. However, if we cannot learn to adapt, all power in the comedy industry, not just some, will lie in the executive suites of Netflix, Amazon, TikTok, YouTube, and other media platforms. A simple Google search will reveal hundreds of thought pieces on a huge boom in stand-up comedy, both in the United States, Europe, and in Asian markets like India. While the internet will always produce a myriad of opinions, one common thread seems to link most of these pieces. They all identify the central driving force of this renaissance not as the comedians, but rather the money that pumped into the production of comedy events. I counted twenty comedy “specials” on Netflix alone. I am always supportive of comedians being paid well, but if corporate spending in the industry is not checked, they will soon be able to buy out the comedic world.
The Lack of Infrastructure
As it stands, there are virtually no organizations or entities dedicated to ensuring that comedians cannot be taken advantage of for their IP. In short, if stand-up comedians are not able to swallow their pride and agree to increased IP management surrounding stand-up, their fears of losing agency in their art form would only be realized. Another factor that has given streaming services a major advantage in comedy relative to other fields is that, not only is there a lack of legislation, but there is also a severe lack of definition. No production company could claim a member of the Screen Actors Guild was not an actor. Whereas, for comedians, no kind of validation exists, as there is no united body capable of professionally validating a comedian. This does not mean that comedy should grow more exclusive at all levels, but when Netflix stands to make millions off your words and actions, you don’t want to be cut out from it on a technicality. Moreover, this lack of definition makes the little copyright law in the comedic world malleable in the hands of these streaming groups. Even something as seemingly trivial as the difference between a scripted act and an unscripted act has major implications as the latter remains one of the most popular forms of comedy and is still largely unprotected. With no artist-driven regulation, comedians will lose the autonomy of their own craft. While all commercial art forms go through this to some extent, it is much more corrosive to comedy as its very character is tied to a staunch refusal to bend or yield to any external body.
The stand-up comedy world is now for sale, but if comedians want to be included in the incoming profits, they need to install infrastructure that protects them before companies like Netflix set up their own. I have no doubt that in the next few years, waves of new legislation and associations will sprout up in this industry, but the question will be, who do they benefit? As it stands, the world of IP law in stand-up is a barely scribbled slate, and if comedians take a more passive role in the forging of these systems, the dominant voices of the industry will be that of corporate comedy, rather than the lone stand-up with their mic, no matter how loud it is.