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Instagram Account Hit With Shame Campaign After It Steals Jokes


Stealing jokes may be as old as comedy itself. And on Instagram, it's particularly rampant and profitable. But as Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money team podcast reports, a social media campaign may be forcing one of the biggest Instagram curators to change its behavior. And a warning here - this report contains sensitive language we have bleeped out.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: There's a certain kind of Instagram account - millions of followers, mostly reposting memes, tweets or jokes from around the Web, usually without offering payment, credit or even asking permission from their creators.

MEGH WRIGHT: These accounts have been able to run seemingly with no oversight. It's like the Wild West. There's no rules.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Megh Wright covers comedy for the entertainment website Vulture. She says there's been criticism of this over the years, but it hasn't stopped the problem.

WRIGHT: Maybe because memes are seen as silly and dumb. And who cares, right? But they've made a ton of money.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: One account in particular caught her eye. We can't say its name on the radio. That's because it's called [expletive]jerry. They were cutting big ad deals. And when Wright realized that even Comedy Central was sponsoring what she considered to be one of Instagram's worst offenders, she decided to take action.

WRIGHT: I basically just started tweeting a lot until enough comedians, enough people started paying attention and responding to it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Soon, big-name comedians like Patton Oswalt and John Mulaney joined the pile-on, calling on their fans to unfollow the account. Comedian Tim Heidecker even dropped a diss track.


TIM HEIDECKER: (Singing) [Expletive] [expletive]jerry. Run them out of town. They ain't nothing but two-bit thieves. Shut those [expletive] down.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A big joke-theft shame campaign like this was relatively new to Instagram, but not to comedy. Chris Sprigman of NYU Law School says that in stand-up comedy, public shaming often works better than a lawsuit for two main reasons. The first is the way that copyright works. It can protect the specific expression or wording of a joke, but not the idea behind it.

CHRIS SPRIGMAN: You can take the specific wording of a joke, rewrite it, and you can escape copyright. You're free to take ideas, even if you can't take expression. So copyright has limited ability to protect jokes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The other big reason is economic. It costs money to register the copyright for a given joke, and even more to hire a lawyer to enforce the copyright. It's rarely worth it. So Sprigman says comedians developed their own de facto intellectual property norms to make sure their creative innovations are not for naught.

SPRIGMAN: The comedic community can start bad-mouthing that person, and then, if that doesn't work, shunning them and refusing to work on a bill with them.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And Sprigman says that's what's happening on Instagram right now. In the weeks since the first tweet calling out [expletive]jerry, the account has lost some 300,000 followers. And Comedy Central announced it would no longer advertise with them.

Elliot Tebele, the founder of the account, declined to comment for this story, but he did issue a public response on the website Medium. He said he's been following the evolving standard practices of Instagram. He wrote that when he started, there were no well-established ethical norms about reposting other people's content. He also apologized to anyone who feels they've been wronged in the past. And he committed to a strict, new policy of giving credit and getting permission for every new post going forward.

Megh Wright at Vulture says she's happy that her campaign has helped to push norms in online comedy. She hopes that next, the joke writers themselves can start getting paid. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ PREMIER'S "DOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).