Steal my jokes and I'll see you in court

Edinburgh Festival: Heard the one about the comics guarding their one-liners?
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The Independent Culture

"Why are lawyers never attacked by sharks? Professional courtesy". Before you even think about telling anyone else this joke, you might need to brush up on your copyright law.

That is what a new wave of young comics at this month's Edinburgh Festival Fringe will do with a crash course in the law to stop them being ripped off. Rising comedians, whose only brush with the legal world is normally to fire a cheap crack at rapacious lawyers, are being offered the chance to attend free advice clinics.

It could be anything from how to protect those killer one-liners to reading the fine print in the lucrative TV contract the comics hope to land.

Charlotte Harris, who is hosting the advice clinics, said aspiring comedians are in particular need of legal pointers. It is notoriously difficult to copyright a joke, and young comics tend to be so flattered by the attentions of TV and radio producers they do not bother to check if they will be paid properly.

"People also get embarrassed, and think they shouldn't have the audacity to challenge the situation. But it actually makes them seem more professional," said Ms Harris. "We know comics don't have the money to get legal advice until they're very big, which is why we're offering these free surgeries."

Lucy Porter, doing her fifth year of solo shows at the festival, said: "Every single comedian in Edinburgh will go, because they've all been shafted. Mind you, if it's before three in the afternoon, there'll be no one there because they'll all still be asleep."

The most recent high-profile case of alleged joke plagiarism saw Jimmy Carr claiming that Jim Davidson had swiped a gag. Carr had his lawyers send a warning letter, but his actions brought some derision from others in the comedy world. Stewart Lee pointed out at the time that if Jim Davidson wants to use your jokes, it might be time to rethink your material.

The legal company Hill Dickinson is offering the surgeries for comedians and theatre groups as part of its sponsorship of The Pleasance, the festival's comedy hub. Philip Woods, its head of intellectual property, said performers tend to have their minds on higher things than the small print of any contracts they may be offered. "We are hoping to give performers and theatre companies a grounding and some direction in the legal requirements and key intellectual property issues so that they may embark on more long-term projects," he explained.

But not all this year's Edinburgh acts were keen on training in the legal mechanics of the comedy world. Laurence Howarth, of the double act Laurence & Gus, said: "When I hear about people who are obsessed with copyright and legal things I always think they're using it as a reason why their work hasn't been successful."

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