Jokes are lyrics: Royalty activism on behalf of comedians raised to new pitch

Copyright activists, comedians, and streaming services have roiled during the last week over new efforts to pay comedians for their ownership of written material in addition to royalties for recordings of comedy albums, which are currently paid. This separation of the recording from the creative property being recorded mirrors established copyright law in music, where the composed song is recognized, licensed, and paid for separately from the recording.

The initiative comes from a rights administration firm called Spoken Giants, whose focus is spoken-word intellectual property. Spoken Giants has been in dialogue with Spotify for months about comic albums, and the conversation reached a tipping point last week when Spotify removed albums and tracks of some well-known comedians. The affected performers reportedly included Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Hart, and many others.

We verified that Kevin Hart’s concert albums are largely removed from Spotify, and their tracks grayed out of playlists which include them. But while the licensing issue has reportedly been brought to several streaming services, our observation is that responses vary across three of the majors. We saw six Kevin Hart albums in Pandora, and one album in Amazon Music. A similar unevenness is in play with Jim Gaffigan, who showed three albums in Spotify, four in Amazon Music, and eight albums in Pandora.

Lewis Black

Over the weekend comedian Lewis Black asked Spotify to remove him as well, in an apparent gesture of solidarity with the copyright effort. Black is a Spoken Giants artist, as are Tom Segura, Tiffany Haddish, Jeff Foxworthy, Patton Oswalt, Bob Newhart, and many other headliners. “It has taken a long time for comedy to be recognized as an art form,” Black stated. “Therefore, Spotify should recognize that a joke is as powerful as a lyric of a song, which they do pay for.”

The idea that a comic script, performed in a live recording of a comedy show, has the same copyright integrity and license requirement as song lyrics might be new information for many people. Rights expert Jeff Price posted two sections of the federal U.S. copyright law which itemizes artistic property types: Subject Matter of Copyright and Exclusive Rights in Copyrighted Works. Neither excerpt uses the word “comedy,” but each refers to literary works and dramatic works.

Jeff Price

“The laws already exist. The problem is the breaking of the law and copyright infringement,” asserts Price in the Pho listserv. Price has been involved in audio downloading since 1998, founded TuneCore in 2006, and is currently CEO of Word Collections, a global copyright collection agency he founded in mid-2020 that spans across songwriters, comedians, and other spoken word performers.


Brad Hill