When it comes to the business of copyrights and its protection, one could be forgiven for thinking of comedians as downstairs people compared to musicians. To be sure, this old problem also seems to be a matter of respect as well as money. Not surprisingly, the comedy community these days is trying to do something about it and this time it’s the streaming services that are in their crosshairs for allegedly using their work without paying compensation for it by way of licensing. Enter Lewis Black: the comedian is suing the streamer Pandora in a California federal court for $10 million in copyright infringement damages, for allegedly streaming about 68 of his works without a license. The works in question are comedy recordings.
Black is only the latest comedian to file this sort of claim against Pandora, which is already being sued by comedians like Andrew Dice Clay, Ron White and others, including the estates of George Carlin and Robin Williams. A win in these lawsuits will be a huge development both in terms of expanding the landscape of available copyright protection and of course turning on an additional money tap for comedians. The other big streamer Spotify avoided similar litigation last year by moving pre-emptively to yank some comedy recording from its platform after it couldn’t agree terms with the copyright holders. In that dispute, Black himself, in a gesture of solidarity with the aggrieved comedians demanded that his own works be taken off Spotify platforms as well.
But what is really at issue in these cases and can Black and his brethren in fact win?
For starters, it bears explaining that when a work is protected by copyright, it means that the said work is both an “original” creation of the copyright owner as well as a thing that is affixed to a “tangible medium.” The said copyright owner could be an artist, a designer, a writer and more.
Now, though the allegation of the comedians we’re dealing with here is that the streamers are basically not paying for the recording being streamed at all, the question that must ultimately be resolved when it comes time to pay is exactly what particular elements of the comedy “work” should be paid for under a license. In other words, exactly what contents of the work are being licensed by the streamers? (The sort of copyright that comedians hold in their work is known as “spoken-word” copyrights.)
While the streamers like Pandora and Spotify claim that a comedy recording is a single unified product that should attract only one license fee for the whole work, the comedians, for their part, claim that a comedy recording does in fact have two portions, namely, the recording itself and then the composition, or comedy writing, as separate components. To support their case, the comedians point to the situation with musical copyrights where the license purchaser, say a streaming service, buys and pays for both the musical recording itself as well as the composition of the song lyrics, as separate licenses. This argument was well foreshadowed by Black’s now famous remark that “a joke is just as powerful as a lyric of a song,” with the obvious implication that since the streamers are already paying separately for song lyrics, why not a joke as well.
Then again, one might well ask: if a musical recording and comedy recording are so analogous to each other, how come the two products have been treated so differently for so long and how come the comedians are only speaking up now?
It is worth noting how this question of timing seems to have played into the defense of the streamers as they attempt to fight off the recognition of this additional copyright, namely, comedy writing, which the comedians are seeking. In this regard, the streamers’ argument can be described as one based on tradition, something that some may well perceive as somewhat oppressive. And it appears to relate to rather philosophical questions about the historical place of comedy in the broader society’s scheme of things and the inevitable value judgments around such questions. In this context, it is common knowledge that comedy’s existing recognition as an authentic art form or rather as “its own thing” is of rather recent vintage. By contrast, music and the visual arts (think sculpture, painting, et cetera) have long been respected as legitimate art forms with valid claims to their own integrity and thus deserving of protection via things like copyright.
Now fast forward to contemporary times and it is soon obvious that comedy’s fortunes have changed: with its newfound status as a legitimate art form, basking in the glow of a “golden age,” comedy no doubt has acquired a quite defensible claim to the greater protection of its integrity, just like music and the visual arts. Thus, for the comedy community, there is no better time than now to press this additional claim as part of an overall effort to protect every aspect of their art form and to benefit from it where appropriate. Quite simply, if not now, when?
So, in a manner of speaking, this brings us to a history versus law scenario: the comedy community’s good timing in launching this fight for a bigger slice of the pie is one thing, but whether the court will recognize their claim is quite another, considering the novelty of their claim. Though there is no certainty as to what the court will do, yet, if the comedians can justify their new claims under the law, then history won’t be able to stand in their way and they will win big. As already noted, such a big win will expand the contours of what elements of a work of comedy are protected from infringement and thus available for additional licensing. In this battle for more respect and money it seems like the comedians are the odds-on favorites to win, given the similarity of a joke and a song lyric in this copyright context and the sheer oddness of continuing to treat the two items differently. But, of course, the jury’s still out on the matter.
*Book Release Notice: Well, folks, the new book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting,” is finally here and is scheduled for official release on September 22, 2022. Publisher: Hybrid Global Publishing. However, as of today the book is available on Amazon as an ebook for 99 cents. If you do obtain your copy at Amazon and you happen to like the book, please feel free to recommend the book to your friends/associates by simply giving the book a nice review/recommendation on Amazon. Enjoy the read and the laughs! Cheers!