Henry E. Smith

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Does Equity Pass the Laugh Test? A Response to Oliar and Springman, 95 Virginia Law Review in Brief 9 (2009)


Copyright law may not be the answer, but what is the question? Dotan Oliar and Christopher Sprigman explore an example of a norm system—the one among stand-up comedians against joke theft—and show why it is likely superior to use of copyright to protect rights in jokes. In the course of their study they document both how formal copyright law is unsuited to protecting comedic material and what type of norm system, enforced by other comics and booking agents, has sprung up in its stead. From a property point of view, the likely bi-causal relationship between the development of the antiplagiarism norm and the rise of narrative, observational, and social commentary-style comedy out of earlier vaudeville and post-vaudeville styles is now, thanks to Oliar and Sprigman, one of the better documented cases of Demsetzian development we have. Oliar and Sprigman also argue that for all its dangers of mob justice and extreme simplicity, the norm system does protect investments in developing comedic material and is likely more effective and desirable than an enhanced copyright law that might well crowd out the norms system.

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