Saturday 22 June 2013


Copyright protection in Ugandan stand-up comedy: Are laughs for free?

It is much easier to make babies laugh than it is to bring grown-ups to laughter. It is even much harder to make a living out of stand-up comedy. Nonetheless, the Ugandan audience in particular has a soft spot for entertainment and has so far been faithful to the stand-up comedy branch of entertainment since it became popular only a few years ago. Even from a Law and Economics perspective, the transaction costs are low for the comedians involved so they attain their efficiency moderately quickly.
As we laugh over these jokes, what comes to the mind of an intellectual property advocate is: what does it take to process these jokes? Considering that copyright law protects the expression and not the idea, we would right away be looking at any written scripts of the jokes before they are relayed on stage as well as recordings of the jokes as they are given. This is the material form that necessitates protection.

However, challenges abide when it comes to tracking ownership through expression. The questions posed are: Whose joke was it in the first place? Is Pablo the author of his jokes or does he pick them from some other source? Originality in composition of jokes is not something that comes about easily for many of the artists in this industry and it is noted that many of them repeat the same jokes over and over again with different audiences. If they cannot successfully lay a claim for originality, then it would be harder still to protect their comedy expressions as Intellectual Property. This is where copyright protection in stand-up comedy loses its effectiveness.

It is also harder to protect stand-up comedy where most of the jokes are concentrated on particular themes. For instance, most themes among Ugandan stage comedians focus on sex and ethnicity. The originality loses itself somewhere in the process of the expression making it difficult to rely on copyright protection for the joke.

It would be expected that the U.S has a more efficient copyright protection over stand-up comedy which is a very lucrative business but the same challenges towards such protection are evident in this country. Some comedians rely on taking matters under their own hands rather than rely on legal inefficiencies. Comedian George Lopez once confessed to having grabbed fellow comedian Carlos Mencia at the Laugh Factory comedy club, slammed him against a wall and punched him in retaliation for joke-stealing. But is violence or vigilantism the solution?

The Laughs may not be for free, but Ugandan copyright law has no answers either – at least for now. It would be interesting to know what other copyright lawyers think about legally protecting Stand-up comedies, otherwise – the joke’s on us.



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