Take My Joke, Please

28 April 2009 at 9:26 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Like other boring professors, I try to liven up my lectures and after-dinner speeches with a few jokes. Naturally, this effort is plagued by radical uncertainty. And of course I steal the jokes. Indeed, I maintain a computer file of one-liners and funny stories — none original — for possible future use. Then again, as Fabio notes, many stand-up comedians are known as prodigious copiers. Milton Berle once said another comedian made him laugh so hard, “I nearly dropped my pencil.”

Good thing I’m not a professional comedian. According to this paper by Dotan Oliar and Christopher Jon Sprigman, the community of stand-up comedians is characterized by strong social norms that take the place of formal rules in enforcing “ownership” of jokes. A complex system of norms has emerged over the last half-century that “regulates issues such as authorship, ownership, transfer of rights, exceptions to informal ownership claims and the imposition of sanctions on norms violators. Under the norms system, the level of investment in original material has increased substantially.” Presumably the community of professional comedians satisfies the Ellickson requirements of being a small, well-defined, close-knit group. Lucky for me I’m not in it. (HT: orgtheory commentator Johann.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Institutions, Law and Economics.

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