After almost four years of litigation between TBS late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien and comedy writer Alex Kaseberg over five jokes Kaseberg alleged Conan and his writing team stole from Kaseberg’s Twitter feed, the clashing comics finally reached a settlement. Though the terms of the agreement are confidential, both parties seem relieved the case has finally run its course.
O’Brien told Variety that the dispute ended “amicably.” He added, “I stand by every word I have written here, but I decided to forgo a potentially farcical and expensive jury trial in federal court over five jokes that don’t even make sense anymore. Four years and countless legal bills have been plenty.”
Kaseberg also seemed content with dropping the curtain. “As a professional comedy writer, all I want to do is make people laugh and stand up for the things I believe in,” Kaseberg told Variety. “I am proud my case helped shed light on an issue facing all comedy writers and am happy to have been part of contributing legal precedent on the issue of protection afforded to jokes.”
The five jokes that set all of this into motion seemed innocent enough. They consisted of a jeer about Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady giving Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll the new Chevy Colorado that Brady promised to the “MVP” of Superbowl XLIX, a gag about a hypothetical street named after Bruce Jenner having to be renamed “cul-de-sacless,” a jest about a discovery that the Washington Monument is ten inches shorter than previously recorded because of “shrinkage” from cold weather, a jab teasing commercial airline passengers for always fighting over the armrest, and a taunt of the Oakland Raiders for their seemingly perpetual futility.
As previously reported, O’Brien knocked out two jokes on summary judgment on the grounds that they were independently created and/or too different from Kaseberg’s jokes for a jury to conclude that they were copied. But the jeers about Pete Carroll, Bruce Jenner, and the Washington Monument remained in play and raised serious concerns over determining whether a newsworthy joke poking fun at current events could be said to have infringed a similar but slightly different joke that pokes fun at the same facts and events. Given that the jokes at issue in this case were newsworthy, the judge found that the jokes would have to be “virtually identical” to be actionable. However, the court was unwilling to decide this issue at summary judgment and set the stage for a long and arduous journey toward trial – a journey surely most comedians would like to avoid. And for good reason. Copyright infringement is no laughing matter.