A San Diego-based freelance writer has accused Conan O’Brien and his team of stealing his jokes. As is often the case with these types of claims, it’s absolutely impossible to know the truth, although common sense may lead you in the right direction. “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," one tweet says, and O’Brien told a similar joke that same day.
Plagiarism has been an issue since, I’m assuming, the age of Aristotle. One guy says, “I think therefore I am,” and the next day some Greek faux-losopher is saying the same thing and acting like he wrote it. Today, Twitter is a popular platform for comedy writers, but it has also fostered a new type of 21st century plagiarism and all the accusations — false and otherwise — that accompany that.
Here's why Conan is (probably) not a joke stealer:
First, these bits are based on events that are in the news. Is it so unusual to think a room full of writers would have the same take on a news story as someone else who writes jokes professionally? More than one time I’ve thrown blunt objects at my computer screen after seeing a sketch that is similar to something I wrote, or heard a joke that is similar to one I made. There is nothing bizarre about a comedian having the same sensibilities as other comedians.
Given this particular coincidence wasn’t a one-time occurrence, that brings me to my second point: the jokes are really obvious.
I don’t mean that as a knock against the freelance writer or O’Brien’s staff. As Alec Baldwin once said on 30 Rock in reference to Jay Leno, “There’s nothing wrong with being popular and giving people want they want.” And in this case, with all four jokes that are in contention, not one of them is so clever that I as a writer am thinking, “No way, only one person in the whole world could come up with a take that unique. Did someone make a hologram of George Carlin? I’ve never heard a joke like this. Stop the metaphorical presses!” I highly doubt that intellectual property violations were involved in any way. I’d more likely believe telepathy or ESP than Andy Richter going on Twitter and finding a goldmine of run-of-the-mill tweets and bringing them back to the writers room, giddy with his mediocre discovery. “Guys, look what I found! Things we could have thought of ourselves!”
Independent of individuals like the one involved in the Conan case, there are times when a joke actually is stolen, and often it is on Twitter. The social media site, to its credit, is now taking that funny business a bit more seriously. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which sounds like it was created in a courtroom in outer space, but was not), Twitter generally does not protect a user’s tweets unless it infringed on, say, a movie clip or photograph.
Twitter does have a forum wherein you can state your claim and they will take action against the offender, but writers are taking things into their own hands as well. One has gone to the media regarding her stolen tweets, and there is also the (awesome) account @PlagiarismBad which has a list of over 4,000 users who have not yet realized that plagiarism is, in fact, bad.
Times have changed, but the love of stealing ideas remains a prevalent issue, particularly in the realm of comedy and especially as technology has expanded and exploded. This will continue to be something writers contend with, but perhaps technology will also lead to greater accountability.