Thursday, July 22, 2010

We are not amused? Jokes, twitter and copyright

Q. Why did the comedian Tweeter cross the road?..

A. .. to steal someone else's joke posted on Twitter??

The Grauniad reports today on the latest spat in the turf war that is developing on Twitter between comedians trying out jokes and material, and passing other parties quietly re using thus material, sometimes explicitly under their own name.

It seems that Keith Chegwin, now no longer for some while the fresh faced lad of Saturday morning TV, has hit rock bottom and resorted to passing off jokes gathered on Twitter as his own "old" material.
Chegwin decided to use his account, where he has more than 36,000 followers (no, me neither), to broadcast a whole load of gags and one-liners. He claimed that these were either his own work, or traditional gags minted by long-dead comics.

Unfortunately, they weren't. Among the gags retold by the one-time player of pop were identifiable jokes written by a number of contemporary standup stars, including Milton Jones, Lee Mack and Jimmy Carr. And what Cheggers presumably envisaged as a warm-hearted bit of fun has stirred up a sizeable amount of bad feeling within the comedy community. One comedian, Ed Byrne, even took Chegwin to task on Twitter, telling him he was wrong not to credit "working comics" for the jokes he was using.

This is not the first occasion of such, er, lack of amusement, emerging. My esteemed colleague @loveandgarbage tells me that this is a common source of disquiet. Comedians like to test and work on their material and Twitter with its potential for response and re-tweeting is a prfect venue for this. But the real question is, does anyone own a joke? Should they? Isn't this common cultural property? Where would society be if the first person to invent a "knock knock " job had asserted copyright in it?

Jokes - and especially tweeted jokes - are often quite short, vaguely familiar variations on a theme, and don't look much like the public conception of a "literary work", which is the applicable category of copyright (for written down jokes anyway). But the law as usual is not as simple as ordinary common sense.

Copyright exists only in works which are "original literary works". But case law has set a very low bar on such protection. A "literary" work has been held to include a long list of extremely unexciting written-down "things", eg, exam papers, football coupon forms, and a large number of meaningless five letter words used as codes. Looking at rather short literary works, it is generally acknowledged, eg, that some particularly pithy headlines might well engage copyright, though slogans are more contested, and usually protected by trade mark. There is the famous Exxon case, Exxon Corp. v. Exxon Insurance Consultants International Ltd [1982] Ch. 119, in which the English court held one word was too short to be a literary work. But 140 characters is somewhat longer and there is an interesting quote in the Exxon case from University of London Press Ltd. v University Tutorial Press Ltd. [1916] 2 Ch. 601 in which Peterson J. said, at pp. 609-610:

The objections with which I have dealt do not appear to me to have any substance, and, after all, there remains the rough practical test that what is worth copying is prima facie worth protecting.

Copying jokes certainly seems to be a worthwhile economic activity. But are jokes "original"? There is surely an argument that, like recipes, every joke that exists has already been invented in some fundamental form - and therefore can be freely copied and adapted. Yet jobbing comedians do put a great deal of work into, and base their income on, inventing "new" jokes - and as the Grauniad note, the culture has shifted since the 80s to a point where comedians now regularly claim to "own" their jokes (I've also just been referred to this fascinating piece):

The idea that a comedian had outright ownership of his material seems to have taken root in this country once Manning et al gave way to the Ben Elton generation. For the original alternative comedians, simple gag-telling was far less important than presenting a fully-formed original perspective on the world. And if you were trying to offer an audience something distinctive (with all the added hard work that involves) then it became crucial to ensure that your gags were wholly your own....In recent years, the main victims of plagiarism in standup have been those comics who rely heavily on one-liners and quickfire jokes. For gag thieves, these present the perfect opportunistic crime: they're easy to lift and contain fewer hallmarks of the originator's personality.
So maybe there is copyright in the jokes in question, and poor Cheggers is a copyright pirate. (Appealing to Technollama here to insert a Photoshop mock up pic!) But there is a serious point here, of which the Twitter joke is (paradoxically) a good example.

Is there copyright generally in any tweet? If so, what happens to re-tweeting? Passing around tweets by re-tweeting them is, for most tweeters, welcome : both providing an ego boost and allowing the community to share useful and amusing information at lightning speed. Yet if copyright exists in tweets, such activity is prima facie copyright infringing.

Again, there is a strong argument that by writing in an unprotected, open to the public, Twitter account, you are granting an implied license to copy. (Twitter itself seems to recognise this by providing no re-tweet button where the tweet is a friends-only one.) However the "implied license" argument has been frequently repelled on the Net generally: it is now very well accepted that simply posting something on a website, like a photo, or a story, does not in any way grant permission to all and large to reproduce it (cf a thousand spats over fans downloading pictures of their heroes from official media websites). Why should Twitter be any different? As usual, this would very much be on a case by case basis and depend on intentions, if litigation was ever to occur.

So we are left in a dilemma. If comedians are to get protection, we may prejudice perhaps the fundamental mechanism by which Twitter adds value to its community: the re-tweet.

But that's not the only problem. Presumptively granting copyright to tweets would allow particular tweets to be easily suppressed from distribution on threat of legal action, something that migt have serious chilling effects on freedom of speech.

Most recently, eg, take the Ben Goldacre/ Gillian McKeith spat, over whether Ms McKeith had called Mr Goldacre a liar on Twitter. Conveniently for the Goldacre side, someone had taken a screen cap of the incriminating tweets by McKeith, before she sensibly and fairly quickly deleted them. I wondered at the time if these tweets were not her copyright, and thus illicitly copied and distributed - as clearly she had not given permision, or if she had, had withdrawn it by deleting the tweets on her own account. And copyright can be so much easier a way to suppress speech than libel since it does not involve any enquiry over whether what was said was a lie or detrimental to anyone's reputation.

Of course, again (as with yesterday's FOI post) in copyright, there are exceptions for news reporting and public interest elements. But these are untested for social media and particularly for amateur tweeters rather than professional journalists. (It is interesting in the two pieces linked to above, that the Guardian themselves link directly to the screen-capped tweets, but Goldacre, a clever careful man, does not. :) Most lay people receiving a cease and desist on copyright grounds would probably delete a re-published tweet without demur. This could be the next way to suppress speech on a vigorous liberal forum like Twitter for everyone from Ms McKeith to the Church of Scientology.

Turning into a bit of a bad joke, eh? :-)


Unknown said...

Nice points on twitter.

But for an argument that the Exxon case (no copyright in a single word name) is no longer good law, see


pangloss said...

Yes, and for a more up to date take on this point see now Francis davey .