Conan O’Brien “Joke” Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Proceeds to Trial

By Joseph Mandour on May 18, 2017

Los Angeles – Late night television host Conan O’Brien, his writing staff, and Time Warner apparently will have to defend themselves at trial in federal civil court in the coming months. The popular television show “Conan” has been accused of stealing three jokes from a blog.

The jokes were allegedly stolen from the blog of freelance comedy writer, Robert “Alex” Kaseberg in 2014 and 2015. Last Friday, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Judge Janis Sammartino ruled that the case can proceed to trial.

Stealing jokes is a serious accusation in the world of comedy. In his deposition, Conan O’Brien himself admitted that, short of murder, stealing a joke is the worst thing a comedian can do. The case has very serious reputational costs associated with it. O’Brien and his team will likely want to avoid being branded as joke thieves, and will want to settle out of court if there is a real chance of losing the case.

On the other hand, suing for copyright infringement of jokes is extremely rare. Part of the reason for this is that the comedy industry has its own inter-community policing norms to resolve such issues without involving the courts. Another reason is that it’s extremely difficult to prove ownership of a joke. In this case, the jokes in question were about news and current events. According to one judge, jokes based on these topics only have “thin” copyright protection. For the plaintiff to win the case several criteria must be met. Apart from proving ownership of the joke, the plaintiff must prove that the jokes are substantially similar. There must also be proof that the defendant had access to the joke.

The three jokes at issue relate to jokes about Tom Brady, the Washington Monument and a joke about Caitlyn Jenner. Each was posted to Kaseberg’s twitter account and then shortly thereafter similar jokes were delivered by Conan O’Brien on his show. Due to how serious a charge joke-theft is within the comedy industry, any settlement out of court will likely need to include language that explicitly states no one is admitting any wrongdoing.

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