There’s a nice write up by Nate Anderson at Ars Technica about a chapter (download it here) in the forthcoming book The Making and Unmaking of Intellectual Property. The chapter is about how norms rather than copyright regulate the pilfering of jokes by comedians from other comedians, and the effects those norms have on the content of comedy. The authors (Dotan Oliar and Christopher Jon Sprigman â€” ironically, the Ars Technica article forgets to mention their names) maintain that once the norms against stealing jokes kicked in, comedy became less about everyone telling the same jokes but in unique performance styles, and more about differentiated material. Norms were sufficient to spur innovation: “Comedians today invest in new, original, and personal content. The medium is no longer focused on reworking of preexisting genres like marriage jokes, ethnic jokes, or knock-knock jokes.”
Encouraged to develop unique materials, comedians have turned to the micro-topics typical of observational humor (“Don’t you hate it when you split an Oreo and there’s just a little bit of filling left on one side?”), and to up-to-the-minute topical jokes. One of the 19 comedians the author interviewed says the rise of norms also led him to write longer jokes, because it’s easier to tell when they’re stolen. It’s also affected the style: since comedians are differentiated mainly (of course not always) by the content of their jokes, their performance style has become an undifferentiated standing in front of a mic.
The authors conclude, among other things, that “norms economize on enforcement costs and appear to maintain a healthy level of incentives to create alongside a greater diversity in the kinds of humor produced.”