Manhattan Comedy School

Strong Arming Against Bootlegging

Posted on by Emily Rosenberg

Regular people, they’re not like comedians. That’s why they see nothing wrong with bootlegging your stand-up performances. Patton Oswalt even found one who thought she was doing him a favor when she hoisted her camera phone at his recent drop-in set at a free (free!) comedy show at a California club.

Things apparently got ugly after Oswalt asked her to stop. But that’s not the point, as some people seem to think. Anyway, the fact that her phone radiated a lightbeam equivalent to a phaser set to “stun” was sufficient justification for him to get surly. According to Oswalt, she added insult to optical injury by informing him that she was just helping him out by documenting random moments of his set, as he would “want this later.” It would be fascinating to learn if she believed it had never occurred to him to record his own performance, perhaps even with professional equipment, and/or how she, a stranger, was planning to forward her file to him for his use.

Here’s the real crux of the issue: The woman was violating Oswalt’s intellectual property rights. Know how when you go to a museum, a movie, or a play, there are notices that you may not photograph the material presented there? A comedy club is no different. Someone is performing their original work. And both the comedian’s written material and his or her performances are protected by copyright law. If you record it without their permission, you’re stealing their work.

Oswalt does a great job of explaining exactly why this kind of theft hurts each and every artist who experiences it. The woman at this performance fired up her camera when he was already halfway through a particularly rough and personal bit. That bifurcated chunk doesn’t represent him, or his material, the way he wants. So if she goes home and posts it for all the world to see, she’s seized control of his bread and butter.  As Oswalt says:

It’s the equivalent, to me, of sitting at a table in a coffee shop or library, writing the first draft of a short story, or screenplay or, were I a musician, song lyrics, and having someone walk by, whip the sheet away from me, snap a pic with their camera, and then say, “Hey, I’m a fan of your stuff. I want the new thing you’re working on permanently on my phone now. I’m deciding when it’s ‘done.'”

It’s disturbing that all comics aren’t familiar with this fundamental right to control their work, which belongs to all creative professionals. Comedian Barbara Gray appears to be one of the uninformed. She was at the performance in question, and thought Oswalt was being “an asshole” about the whole episode.

Now, Gray’s entitled to be upset that he hurled personal insults at the woman doing the recording. She can also be concerned that a segment of the audience might be alienated by his outburst—although why, as she seems to think, they’d be equally disgusted by all comedians performing at that venue is a mystery. But when she declares, “If I was her I would have uploaded the entire thing when I got home just to spite him,” it’s apparent that Gray doesn’t grasp that what the woman did would be unacceptable if any comedian, herself included, had been on stage. Posting the footage would not be merely a way to stick it to a rude performer. It would be an illegal act that Oswalt would be entitled to pursue action on in civil court.

So, no, the woman was not “lambasted for doing something that [she] believed to be innocent.” She was lucky to avoid a lawsuit. And when you become famous enough to warrant bootlegging, you should help protect your fellow comedians by stopping people who try to steal your work.



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