June 30, 2011 / 7:47 PM / 8 years ago

Wayans brothers face trial for alleged joke theft

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Trial alert! On July 12th, the best comedy in Los Angeles will not be heard at the Improv, but rather a federal court as the Wayans brothers face down a former assistant who charges that they ripped off jokes for their book, “You Know You’re a Golddigger When...”

Actors and brothers (L-R) Keenan Ivory Wayans, Marlon Wayans and Shawn Wayans arrive for the 2006 BET Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles June 27, 2006. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Jared Edwards worked for the comedy family for a decade and wrote jokes about women who prey upon wealthy men. He claims he pitched the idea for a book that would include material like “You know you’re a golddigger when you know more about sports players’ stats than an ESPN analyst.”

Keenen, Shawn and Marlon Wayans rejected the idea, and then allegedly did their own version.

Joke theft allegations have been around almost as long as the first “Knock, Knock” joke, but recently, comedians have become more sensitive to laugh larceny, raising the copyright infringement card.

Because Edwards worked for the Wayans brothers, this case goes a bit above and beyond the typical plagiarism routine of a plaintiff struggling to prove the copying of expression rather than theft of unprotected ideas. Edwards is claiming that the Wayans (and St. Martin’s Press) not only committed copyright infringement but also breached an implied promise to pay him for use of his ideas. Writers alleging this type of allegation have increasingly been successful in passing judicial muster.

To sum up the defense, you know you’re a golddigging joke-theft plaintiff when:

* You can’t be the owner of a valid copyright on jokes when the material is a work-made-for-hire.

* You can’t own undivided rights on the jokes when, at most, the material was jointly authored.

* You consented to having the jokes performed by the famous Wayans clan.

* You didn’t complain in time, and thus the statute of limitations has run out.

The trial is sure to provide some laughter and entertainment, but might not have the full shock value possible. That’s because the parties have stipulated that certain alleged “bad acts” won’t be brought up, including allegations that Edwards committed check fraud and borrowed $12,000 from Shawn, that Edwards engaged in sexual acts in Shawn’s vehicle, and that Edwards threw a phone at Marlon.

Still, the trial won’t be devoid of highjinks. There’s been a suggestion made in court papers that the attorney for the Wayans brothers will attempt to impeach Edwards for things he said during the deposition.

Finally, even if the Wayans brothers lose, they might not have to fork over a significant amount of money. The book was hardly a best-seller, and so the judge has capped a damage award to the amount of money the Wayans got as an advance for writing the book, foreclosing any of the publisher’s profits.

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