Chris Sprigman (left) and Dotan Oliar Mary Wood

When does stand-up comedy stop being a laughing matter?

When accusations fly that one quipster is stealing another’s jokes.

A feud between Joe Rogan and Carlos Mencia centered on just such an accusation, and it spurred two UVA law professors to examine what protections exist for intellectual property among comedians.

Chris Sprigman and Dotan Oliar, both associate professors in the Law School, looked at how comedy has changed from the one-liners of the vaudeville era to the polished routines of modern comedians. They found that a system of informal social norms has developed as an effective substitute for intellectual property laws—a sort of stand-in for stand-ups.

“The law has not done the job of protecting jokes, but the joke market has not failed. The market is substituting this set of informal rules for the formal ones, and as far as we can see it’s doing a pretty good job,” Sprigman says.

A faceoff between Rogan and Mencia occurred in February 2007 at a Los Angeles comedy club. Rogan accused Mencia of ripping off other comedians’ material; Mencia denied it. “The two of them had an almost physical fight on stage, where they were yelling at each other,” Sprigman says. An obscenity-laced video of the confrontation generated more than 2 million views online and considerable comment on the Web.

Sprigman and Oliar spent nearly a year researching and interviewing comedians, and their results were published in the Virginia Law Review. They found that, in addition to the prohibition against joke stealing, comedians had their own rules for addressing violators—from simply talking with suspected offenders to employing public ridicule.

The professors’ study also had implications for intellectual property theory and policy beyond comedy. A system of norms can have effective incentives and be more flexible and less costly than formal law, they said.

A potential downside to social norms, though, is that they might not be as effective as formal legal protection in punishing top comedians.

“If a successful comedian doesn’t care too much about the community’s feelings toward him, then he’s hard to discipline,” Sprigman says. “But keep in mind that the formal law doesn’t always work either.”