Drake allegedly has a ghostwriter and now Conan O’Brien is being sued for stealing jokes.
Does anyone write their own stuff anymore?
Alex Kaseberg, a freelance comedy writer, is suing O’Brien for copyright infringement over several tweets and blog posts he claimed were lifted and then incorporated into the late-night host’s monologue.
According to the suit, which is posted online, Kaseberg alleges that “Conan” writers lifted four jokes from January, February and as recently as June from his Twitter page and blog and used them – or some slight variation of them – on the show, usually within a day or two of Kaseberg publishing them. He’s suing for more than $600,000.
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At least two of the jokes in contention appear on the Team Coco website for O’Brien’s show.
Here’s one: “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.”
Kaseberg’s original joke reads, “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.”
The second one: “Surveyors announced that the Washington Monument is 10 inches shorter than what’s been recorded. Of course, the monument is blaming the shrinkage on cold weather.”
Here’s Kaseberg’s version: “The Washington Monument is ten inches shorter than previously thought. You know winter has been cold when a monument suffers from shrinkage.”
And here are the other two jokes referenced in the lawsuit:
“Tom Brady said he wants to give his MVP truck to the man who won the game for the Patriots. So enjoy that truck, Pete Carroll.”
“Three streets named Bruce Jenner might have to change names. And one could go from a Cul-de-Sac to a Cul-de-Sackless.”
Conaco, the production company responsible for “Conan,” told the Hollywood Reporter in a statement it believes “there is no merit to this lawsuit.”
Kaseberg isn’t the only comedian to accuse a television comedian of stealing his online jokes. Rob Delaney has said it happened to him, too, though he elected not to retaliate. Writing for Vice in 2011, Delaney explained why:
“I had the good fortune some years ago to have a joke stolen from me and performed on TV by a comic I knew. At first I was upset, but then I realized that, poor etiquette aside, the guy was funny and he would’ve been on TV with or without my joke. I also realized that if I couldn’t immediately write several more jokes to replace it, then I wasn’t funny, and I had no business calling myself a comedian. So I forced myself to make a mental adjustment and decide that the guy had done me a giant favor. And he had. I became much less precious about material. Of course I’d be ‘proud’ of a good joke, but I knew to thicken my skin and just produce. My silent motto when I began to encounter joke theft on Twitter was ‘Go ahead and take ‘em, motherf-er. Here come five more.’ My goal as a comedian became to be a Delta Force Operator of humor that you could throw in an empty room with nothing and I could make something funny and kill people with it. This remains my goal.”
There are Twitter accounts, usually bots, set up to steal jokes and pass them off as their own, but there are human ones who profit handsomely from the practice as well. Joke theft is as old as comedy itself. The existence of Twitter has just accelerated – and monetized – the process.
The Fat Jew
Such is the case with Joshua Ostrovsky, who was named one of Time’s 30 Most Influential People on the Internet and reportedly makes $6,000 for a single, sponsored Instagram post despite the fact that he’s been repeatedly accused of stealing viral memes from Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter and passing them off as his own. Ostrovsky is known across the Internet as the Fat Jew. Many have raised questions about Ostrovsky’s ethics and those of Elliot Tebele, the guy behind the popular F– Jerry Instagram account, who has been accused of the same practices. Ostrovsky isn’t just profiting from Instagram posts; he leveraged his popularity to sell pilots to Comedy Central and Amazon and snag a book deal.
Before Ostrovsky and Tebele were lighting up Instagram, Sammy Rhodes was getting called out for recycling jokes. There was the @bill––murray account, a parody account that actually just plagiarized other comedians. But that may change. Twitter has begun sending Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices to accounts that routinely copy and paste content from other accounts and pass it off as original, the Verge reported this week.
Kaseberg’s lawsuit may just be the next step in determining what’s legal when it comes to joke stealing, and what’s simply frowned upon and taboo.