They say great minds think alike, but how do we determine the difference between thinking alike and stealing ideas? Thanks to copyright and trademark laws, some ideas are given a certain level of protection in this country, although the line between stealing an idea and having the same (or a similar) idea can get very blurry. This is especially true of creative professions, such as comedy.
According to a recent lawsuit filed against Conan O’Brien and the writers of his show, at least five of the jokes used in some of O’Brien’s opening monologues were stolen from Alex Kaseberg’s blog. Kaseberg is a freelance comedy writer who claims to have written comedy for Jay Leno, as well as several publications.
According to Kaseberg, the jokes in question allegedly appeared on his blog from December 2014 to June 2015 and it wasn’t long afterwards that they started appearing in the opening monologues of O’Brien’s late-night show on TBS.
One of the examples listed in the complaint includes a joke about the University of Alabama-Birmingham cancelling its football program. Aside from changing the name of a second football team, the joke appeared almost word for word on O’Brien’s show the day after Kaseberg posted it on his blog. Both the similarity between the two jokes and the timing seem a bit too much to be taken for mere coincidence and the judge presiding over the case agreed.
Accusations of stolen jokes are common among professional comedians, but they rarely go beyond that point. The fact that Kaseberg went so far as to file a lawsuit against a comedy giant like O’Brien demonstrates, not only his conviction that he’s in the right, but that his attorneys think he has a legitimate case.
Judge Janis Sammartino, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, agreed, allowing Kaseberg’s claims for three of the jokes to move forward. Judge Sammartino dismissed the claims for the other two jokes listed in the original complaint.
Kaseberg and his attorney, Jayson Lorenzo, have expressed their pleasure at the judge’s decision to allow most of their claims to move forward. They called it a victory for comedy writers everywhere, particularly those who are less well known.
A freelance writer taking on a household name, like Conan O’Brien, in court is a bit like David taking on Goliath. O’Brien has the money, the name recognition, and the star power behind him, but if Kaseberg wins this lawsuit against him, it could turn into a classic case of truth triumphing over power.
But it’s more likely the two parties will reach a settlement agreement outside of court. O’Brien’s legal team pushed for summary judgment of the lawsuit, and when they failed to achieve it, their next move will most likely be to seek settlement negotiations.
Kaseberg has a lot to lose in this lawsuit, whereas very little is at risk for O’Brien. Conan and his legal team will most likely be satisfied with a settlement that makes the whole thing go away, and Kaseberg will likewise benefit from a settlement where he is assured of receiving something, rather than the uncertainty of pursuing the legal dispute in court.
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