PROTECTING THE GOLD IN THE COMEDY INDUSTRY: FINDING THE BALANCE BETWEEN THE LAW AND THE COMEDY CULTURE

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In my journey as an entertainment lawyer, I’ve navigated the diverse and vibrant niches of the Nigerian entertainment industry—from music and film to sports, fashion, graphic design, and stand-up comedy.

As a copyright and intellectual property expert, I’ve seen firsthand the untapped potential within our creative works. However, a common thread in my experience is that many talents enter the showbiz world with a singular focus: to “blow” (a popular Nigerian slang for achieving fame).

This singular pursuit often blinds them to the immense value their creative works hold as intellectual assets. I’ve witnessed firsthand the clash between legal formalities and the industry’s deeply ingrained culture of trust and camaraderie.

In the world of comedy, in which I have recently picked up a special interest, stand-up comedians, often view contracts with skepticism, preferring to navigate their creative world through personal bonds and unwritten customs. An average Nigerian comedian will rely heavily on his colleague’s reputation and social circles as a first line of defense against joke theft or unauthorized use of his material. If you have been following my previous post on entertainment law, you will notice that I have been passionate about the copyright protection of jokes and comedy and how to safeguard the intellectual property created thereon.

You probably might not understand what I am talking about if you have not read the article. You can access it through this link: https://tinyurl.com/Olubunmi-Linkedin-post.

The industry norms or culture of protecting the interests of comedians has always been public calling out offenders, and a tight-knit community that quickly shares whispers of misconduct can serve as a powerful deterrent. However, in the legal realm, I have  encountered surprise and even reluctance from supporting acts/collaborators when I present contracts to secure their performance rights or ensure fair compensation negotiations between talents and the event host. In most cases, although these talents are willing to participate, the very notion of legally binding agreements felt alien in a realm where a handshake and shared laughter typically seal the deal.

My major challenge with this handshake deal sealing practice is: how do we protect the immense value of comedic intellectual property without undermining the relationships and rapport that fuel the craft? The answer, I believe, lies in striking a delicate balance.

On one hand, comedy is indeed big business. Those seemingly spontaneous jokes, characters, and premises are precious intellectual assets deserving of legal safeguards. Copyright protections ensure comics can reap the full rewards of their creative genius across various mediums—live shows, recordings, merchandise, and more. Properly securing these rights is crucial for career longevity and financial success in an industry rife with intellectual property violations.

Yet, the other side of the equation is the unique culture of comedy—that unspoken ethos that binds performers through shared struggles, inside jokes, and an unwavering commitment to making audiences double over in laughter. This culture transcends paperwork, thriving on human connection, mutual respect, and an implicit understanding that we’re all on this wildly unpredictable journey together.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly opposing forces? In my opinion, I would answer through open dialogue, education, and a collaborative re-framing of how legal protections can empower, rather than constrain, the creative process.

As entertainers and stakeholders, we must collectively acknowledge the immense value of the original humor, premises, and personas that set Nigerian comedy apart. Comedians spend years honing their voices and nurturing their intellectual property – it deserves robust protection through thoughtful contracts. However, these agreements needn’t be adversarial. I know everyone gets defensive at the mention of contracts or documentation of agreements between parties, but a properly structured contract can enshrine the mutual trust and collaborative spirit intrinsic to the comedy world.

By proactively engaging the industry and leading with empathy, understanding, and a deep respect for its norms, we can seamlessly blend legal prudence with a culture that champions free creative expression.

My role here is to educate comedians on leveraging the law as an enabling force, fueling their artistry while incentivizing investment and shielding their hard-earned intellectual property from exploitation.

What should we the lawyers do to breach the hostility to legal frameworks in this industry? The path forward involves:

1.Open discussions: We as entertainment lawyers must facilitate transparent and candid dialogue between lawyers and the comedy community. This involves creating forums (both physical and digital) where comedians can freely voice their concerns, questions and perspectives around legal issues. Rather than just lecturing, we should prioritize listening to understand the nuanced realities they face. Open discussions dispel myths, address concerns head-on and collaboratively troubleshoot workable solutions aligning IP protection with their creative processes.
2.Demystifying legal jargon: The language of law is often intimidating and alienating to those outside the profession. We must strive to distill complex legal concepts into clear, accessible terms the comedy community can easily comprehend. Simplifying the verbiage around copyright, trademark, licensing and contracts removes unnecessary barriers to understanding and adoption of formal IP safeguards. User-friendly resources, workshops and an open-door policy for any “legal definition” queries can demystify the perceived obscurity.
3.Fostering a spirit of partnership: Rather than an adversarial mindset, we should actively cultivate a spirit of partnership and collaboration between lawyers and comedians. This requires shifting the perception of lawyers away from overbearing authoritarians issuing draconian edicts. Instead, we should position ourselves as fierce advocates and champions intimately invested in the success and protection of the comedic professional. A partnership built on mutual trust, respect and a shared goal of nurturing the art form while securing its commercial sustainability.
4.Lawyers as advocates and allies: Building on the partnership mentality, our role should evolve into steadfast advocates and allies deeply embedded within the comedy scene. Beyond just drafting contracts for individual clients, we should strive to counsel the entire community – offering guidance, lobbying for progressive policies, and serving as accessible support anytime legal complexities arise. Our interests are intrinsically aligned with amplifying the comedic voice while vigilantly guarding against rights infringement from any threats.
5.Never overbearing adversaries: Lastly, a core tenet involves positioning ourselves as the antithesis of the archetypal, overbearing adversary allergic to creative expression. Through nuanced cultural attunement and a progressive, iterative approach, we should offer a pragmatic legal framework that safely enables rather than stifles the comedians’ artistic genius and career ambitions. Our governance structures should remain adaptable, surfacing from the intricate customs and norms of the comedy scene – not imposed unilaterally through draconian policies divorced from real-world contexts.

As comedians, we must celebrate both the cultural richness of the craft and the immense commercial prospects when intellectual property is properly secured.

Only through mutual understanding and a progressive mindset can the Nigerian comedy scene be uplifted, allowing it to retain its authentic, boundary-pushing edge while ensuring its stars enjoy the success, stability, and creative control they deserve.

The art of social self-policing methods set as norms in the industry has its limits in this era of cross-platform distribution and increasingly lucrative comedy ventures. As stakes rise, so does the incentive for unscrupulous infringement, making formalized legal protections vital.

In Nigeria’s dynamic comedy ecosystem, copyrights are the core intellectual property rights that shield the expression of a comedian’s creative ideas—their unique jokes, premises, characters, and catchphrases. Formally registering this original expression provides crucial legal standing should disputes over ownership arise. Beyond that, entertainers can contractually reinforce their rights through carefully drafted performance agreements, content licenses, and even non-disclosure provisions that maintain creative control.

While comprehensive intellectual property coverage requires a collective mindset shift, certain forward-thinking comedic entrepreneurs (for instance, Basketmouth, Bovi, and Ay Live, among many others) are already setting the tone. Top acts are increasingly bolstering their brands through trademarks on logos, catchphrases, and persona names.

Strategic merchandising only amplifies the need for trademark safeguards against counterfeit goods that hijack a performer’s identity.

Conclusively, laughter may be ephemeral, but the genius that sparks it is a precious resource worth cherishing and nurturing through the perfect counterbalance of creative kinship and legal empowerment stands to enjoy the elusive sweet spot where true comedy gold resides – both culturally resonant and legally protected to thrive long into the future.

AUTHOR: O.A APANTAKU ESQ.

ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER.

HEAD OF ENTERTAINMENT LAW PRACTICE GROUP OF PELICAN CREST LEGAL PRACTITIONERS.

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