#904: Joke Theft Copyrighting comedy is expensive. So comedians have devised an informal system of sanctions to protect their jokes from theft. Sometimes it works.
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#904: Joke Theft

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#904: Joke Theft

#904: Joke Theft

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ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:

Thanks for listening to PLANET MONEY We'd like to better understand who is listening and how you are using podcasts. Please help us out by completing a short anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. It takes 10 minutes and really helps support the show. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Just a heads-up, there is one bad word in this episode, but it comes up a lot. It's the F-word. And as you'll hear, we just can't avoid it. And, actually, there's a couple other bad words in here, too.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jen Lewis was a doodler as a kid.

JEN LEWIS: Never been the class clown. I was really quiet in school. This is the most I've ever spoken.

GONZALEZ: She has the type of humor that sneaks up on you.

Would you say that you're a comedian?

LEWIS: No. I guess I would call myself, like, an Internet humorist. But I have imposter syndrome, so I've never said that term before until right now.

GONZALEZ: She gets paid to make funny things on the Internet for companies like Netflix and BuzzFeed.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: One of Jen's first viral hits came in 2015. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were at the Grammys. There's a picture of them kissing. And Jen decides to have a little fun with it.

LEWIS: I photoshopped Kanye's head onto Kim's body, replaced Kim's hands with Kanye's hands.

GONZALEZ: So it's like Kanye's hands on Kanye's face?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: On Kanye's butt.

LEWIS: Yeah. Kanye's hand on Kanye's butt, Kanye's hand on Kanye's shoulder.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) OK.

LEWIS: In a warm embrace. In a loving...

GONZALEZ: Oh, my God.

LEWIS: ...Loving smooch.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's Kanye kissing Kanye.

GONZALEZ: And it looks extremely realistic. Jen put into a picture what the world in 2015 already had an inkling about - that no one loves Kanye West more than Kanye West.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She posted it on Twitter. And the next day, the picture was everywhere - all over the Internet. It ended up spray-painted on a giant wall in Australia. Eventually, Kanye West even comes out with a song which seems like it could be describing Jen's picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE KANYE")

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) We still love Kanye, and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.

LEWIS: I would love to think that I, maybe, had part of that.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Except when Jen tweeted her picture out the day after the Grammys, she only got 221 likes.

GONZALEZ: Her picture went viral because this hugely popular Instagram account shared her picture on his page. You might've heard of this account. It's called F-wordJerry, like FrickJerry, and it has millions of followers. FunJerry shared Jen's picture the day after she made it, and he wrote that Kanye kissing Kanye looked absolutely terrifying. And his post got 140,000 likes, which, back then, meant it went viral.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So like, in inflation terms, that's like...

LEWIS: Yeah. Pretty good.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...A million likes.

LEWIS: Yeah. Pretty good for 2015.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: All those endorphins.

LEWIS: I know. I know.

GONZALEZ: This viral picture could've been a giant advertisement for Jen and her career, but no one knows she made this.

Did they credit you?

LEWIS: No. It sucks because then, you know, people don't know that it came from you. And that was my joke. That was my idea.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jen says she asked FolkJerry to credit her but that no one responded. And it bothered her at first, but she got over it.

GONZALEZ: Until Jen found out that FJerry could make as much as $30,000 for posting a single ad on his feed.

LEWIS: I don't care if someone's just posting my jokes because they think they're funny and they want their followers to see. But if they put a price tag on those eyes, I think you should be paying them.

GONZALEZ: What felt annoying to Jen in 2015 now felt a lot more like theft.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO AND ELLIOT GREENWAY IRELAND'S "SLAPPED CHEEKS")

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. So is sharing Jen's picture theft? As long as people have been making jokes, other people have been stealing them. And the Internet has made taking jokes easier and more lucrative than ever before. Today on the show, comedians band together to take on one of the biggest alleged joke thieves on the Internet.

GONZALEZ: We look at the weird history of stolen jokes and how one tactic may be the only way to prevent it. Also, we confront the mastermind who stole Jen's joke.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Borrowed?

GONZALEZ: Curated? We are not here for the likes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: We're here for the money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO AND ELLIOT GREENWAY IRELAND'S "SLAPPED CHEEKS")

GONZALEZ: OK. Back in 2011, when Instagram was just a year old and we were all just posting pictures of sunsets, a couple scrappy millennials were scouring the Internet for the funniest things they could find and putting them all on their feed - tweets, memes, text messages, pictures.

MEGH WRIGHT: You don't have to worry about who made this. You can just scroll through it, and it's very funny, and it's all different kinds of people, and that's very convenient.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Megh Wright covers comedy for the entertainment website Vulture. She says these accounts weren't creating content. They were just copy-and-pasting other people's jokes and ideas. And it appealed to a lot of people. They got a ton of followers.

WRIGHT: Which, of course, are followers they got because of all these other people who are doing, you know, unpaid work for them without permission.

GONZALEZ: Some of the most popular comedy accounts on Instagram are @thefatjewish, there's @betches and the one with the most followers of all of them, FrockJerry. He now has 14 million followers. And you know what happens when you have access to 14 million eyeballs? Money.

WRIGHT: Everyone is on their phones. Everyone's scrolling Instagram. That is a great way to advertise anything.

GONZALEZ: Advertisers started knocking on F-wordJerry's door when he reached a million followers. So just imagine what kind of pull he has with 14 million followers. Dating apps, TV networks, fast-food chains - they all started paying FJerry to, you know, mention Bumble once in a while, throw up an ad about MTV, create something funny about Totino's Pizza Rolls.

And then for years, a lot of the Jens of the Internet started grumbling. Like, OK, these brands are reaching out to FJerry because he's popular. But he's only popular because he's been sharing our funny things.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And in the comedy world, that kind of thing unattributed - that could be considered joke theft. And then Comedy Central started advertising on FJerry. And that's when Megh is like, whoa, Comedy Central should know better. They are the home for comedians.

WRIGHT: Giving ad money to a place that has made so many comedians angry and is profiting off their jokes without their permission or - for years without crediting - it just didn't feel like Comedy Central should align themselves with a place like that.

GONZALEZ: Megh decided it was time to unite all the aggrieved people like Jen and start an Internet war.

WRIGHT: Every follower is, let's say, a dollar. Could we take $10,000 from them? Could we take $100,000 from them?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Megh is on a mission to take ad money away from the alleged joke thieves and give it back to the comedians, or something like that. And we're watching all of this, wondering, can you really own a joke? So we called an expert.

When do you think the first act of joke thievery was committed?

CHRIS SPRIGMAN: In the Neolithic era.

GONZALEZ: Chris Sprigman wrote the paper on joke theft. He's an intellectual property lawyer and professor at NYU. But he's a cool IP lawyer. He also studies fashion and porn.

SPRIGMAN: My mom was completely confused by my career. Let's put it that way.

GONZALEZ: Mom, don't come in here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm doing work.

Anyway, Chris says if we want to answer whether you can own a joke and what stealing a joke even means, we have to understand how comedy itself has changed over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: We're taking this way back to vaudeville - slapstick-y variety shows from the 1800s. There are magicians, elephants, acrobats and a funny-ish emcee that you could consider a comedian.

SPRIGMAN: But you wouldn't recognize them as a stand-up comedian. They're an emcee. They're different.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: When vaudeville collapsed after World War II because of more exciting things, like movies and radio, those funny-ish emcees had to go off on their own, went solo.

SPRIGMAN: By the 1950s, this is, you know, growing into kind of the first wave of what we would recognize now as stand-up comedians - the post-vaudeville one-liner joke-slingers.

GONZALEZ: Joke-slingers.

SPRIGMAN: They tell joke after joke after joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Now here he is, your friend and his, Henny Youngman.

HENNY YOUNGMAN: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I'm so happy to be here tonight, even at this salary.

GONZALEZ: They're not really sophisticated jokes. No one is putting a whole lot of effort into them, so no one really cared if you took them.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It isn't until the 1960s that comedians start caring more about the text, putting more work into each joke. Comedians have more of a persona now, writing in a way that is meant for only them to pull off. Take Mitch Hedberg, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH HEDBERG: I don't have a girlfriend. I just know a girl who would get really mad if she heard me say that.

GONZALEZ: Stand-up comedy explodes in the '80s and '90s. Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Katt Williams now have sets that are longer, more intricate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE CHAPPELLE: "Sesame Street" teaches kids how to judge people. They got a character on there named Oscar. They treat this guy like s*** the entire show.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPPELLE: They judge him right in his face. Oscar, you are so mean. Yeah, Oscar, you're a grouch. It's like, b****, I live in a f****** trash can.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

CHAPPELLE: I'm the poorest m*********** on "Sesame Street."

SPRIGMAN: Here, you get jokes that there's more investment in. And therefore, there's a felt need for some protection of them, right? So they can't just be stolen and used.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATT WILLIAMS: White people are friendly. You can call them m************ up at 3 o'clock in the morning with the wrong number, and they won't even be mad at you.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: They just (imitating phone ringing). Hello? No, I'm sorry. No Shaquita (ph) here.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Well, what number did you dial?

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: No, it's a nine, not a seven.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: We'll try it. If it doesn't work, call me back. We'll figure this thing out.

GONZALEZ: Now jokes are intellectual property. But intellectual property laws don't really protect jokes that well. There are a lot of barriers.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It costs $35 to register a joke with the Copyright Office, but you can't copyright a joke that's too short, and you can't copyright ideas. Copyright only protects the specific wording of a joke. And because of that, all it takes to steal one is to slightly rewrite the joke.

GONZALEZ: And all of these rules are here, in a weird way, to keep the jokes flowing so that comedians don't get sued for saying something like, don't you hate it when...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You get sued for using a phrase that should be in the public domain?

GONZALEZ: And then we, the comedy consumers, lose out. No one wants to risk making jokes for us.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And on top of all of that, it's really expensive to defend a joke with copyright law. It's federal law, fancy lawyers. For most comedians, it's just not worth it.

GONZALEZ: Chris says no stand-up comedian has ever filed a copyright lawsuit against another stand-up comedian.

You actually looked for any case.

SPRIGMAN: We looked. We found none.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Chris thinks if comedians aren't using IP law, there must be something else keeping joke theft in check.

SPRIGMAN: That just deepened the mystery. Like, what are they doing? Are they just standing there, tolerating joke theft? Or is there something else operating here that we haven't yet understood?

GONZALEZ: So Chris starts cold-calling comedians. And he finds out that the comedy world has created this whole informal system of sanctions that has kept joke theft at a tolerable level. And we could have Chris, the IP lawyer, explain the system of sanctions. But why would we do that when we could have a real-life stand-up comedian do it?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: PLANET MONEY listeners, Jim Mendrinos.

JIM MENDRINOS: There's an old-fashioned on-the-air sign. That is the most awesome thing I've ever seen.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Although luckily it does - it's not real.

MENDRINOS: We're not on the air?

GONZALEZ: Well, we're not live.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yes.

MENDRINOS: Hold on. I'm not alive?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jim's been doing stand-up for 35 years.

GONZALEZ: He says the most bare-knuckle way that comedians prevent joke theft is with violence. This is actually a real sanction that Chris the IP lawyer found in his big report. You know, break some joke thief's car.

MENDRINOS: I removed his bumper with a crowbar. And I'm there like, every time I hear you do one of my jokes, I'm going to break something on your car. So yeah, you protect what's yours.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Also, comedians created an early warning system to combat joke theft.

MENDRINOS: When there's somebody who is a known joke thief in the room, I'll write a note on a napkin, send the waitress up with a drink for the comic so that they don't do something that's precious to them.

GONZALEZ: It's all about your reputation.

MENDRINOS: I mean, the whole reason why you know to send up a note to another comic when somebody walks in the room is from reputation.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Back in 2002, Jim Mendrinos was at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. Another comedian - a friend of his - is in the middle of a set, and Jim starts writing the note.

GONZALEZ: And he's talking, the waitress comes up.

MENDRINOS: Hands up the drink.

GONZALEZ: The napkin says what?

MENDRINOS: FYI, Robin Williams is in the back watching you.

GONZALEZ: No.

MENDRINOS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I don't think I'm talking ill of the dead, but Robin Williams had a tremendous reputation for being a joke thief.

GONZALEZ: He stole a - borrowed a joke accidentally?

MENDRINOS: Stole - let's not say borrowed. Let's not say accidentally took. You know, it's...

GONZALEZ: It's the Genie. I have attachment issues.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The comedian walked off the stage right after he got Jim's note, said thank you and goodnight. Robin Williams did talk about his reputation for being a joke thief. He said he just kind of soaked up funny things inadvertently. And Jim says Robin Williams actually copied from him.

MENDRINOS: Oh, yeah. And he's a brilliant mind. And you know what? I hate to put it this way, but he did the joke better than I ever could've, which is the frustrating part of it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Robin Williams also figured out a way to smooth things over.

MENDRINOS: And then when I called him out on it, he just had his manager cut me a check - you know, kind of like, oops - never said sorry for stealing it. It was, sorry for the inconvenience.

GONZALEZ: How much was the check for?

MENDRINOS: Two hundred dollars, which, back then, was a lot of money.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Do you remember what the joke was that he stole?

MENDRINOS: No. We're going '85 - '84, '85. Yeah. No, that was a few 8 balls ago. That's not good at...

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

MENDRINOS: ...Being really...

GONZALEZ: Jim says reputation is the currency of the comedy world. If you get the reputation of being a joke thief, the comedy world gets together and imposes a good, old-fashioned public shaming. Comedians refuse to do shows with you. Comedy clubs stop booking you. So when Internet humorists realize that it's hard to lock up their jokes with IP law, they turn to the sanctions created by their comedic forefathers and mothers.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And this is where we come back to Megh Wright, Frick Jerry and the most effective public shaming tool ever built, social media.

GONZALEZ: Megh starts tweeting, asking the internet to unfollow F-word Jerry.

WRIGHT: If no one is going to police them and they're allowed to constantly steal other people's work and profit from it, then we are free to encourage people to devalue them by unfollowing.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In other words, she's going to kick them in the eyeballs.

GONZALEZ: And comedians are like, you are speaking our language. One, named Judah Friedlander, was like, hey, Megh, I think I have the perfect name for your movement.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Frick F Jerry. Comedian Tim Heidecker even wrote them an anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK FUCK JERRY")

TIM HEIDECKER: (Singing) F*** F*** Jerry. Run them out of town.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And a campaign was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK FUCK JERRY")

HEIDECKER: (Singing) Shut those f****** down.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, Amy Schumer - these famous comedians - they're all tweeting F F Jerry. Notoriously good smack-talkers are yelling joke thief on the Internet.

GONZALEZ: And we are going to meet him.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: IRL.

GONZALEZ: In real life.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The tweet tamer himself.

GONZALEZ: The Willy Wonka of viral content - after the break.

We are off to meet the guy who has pissed off a bunch of comedians and Internet humorists at the place where memes go viral.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I think it's one monkey with one typewriter stuck in a room...

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...Around the clock. It's a nice, sunny day in Soho.

GONZALEZ: We are at The Content Factory. Interesting. It's F*ck Jerry.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Now we know how to say it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: OK. Jerry Media's on the third floor, so we take the elevator.

GONZALEZ: Squeaky elevator.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The snozberries (ph) taste like snozberries.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

GENE WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) Wait a minute. Must show you this - lickable (ph) wallpaper for nursery walls.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's a joke. Willy Wonka is not here.

GONZALEZ: There is no lickable wallpaper or Gobstoppers, but F*ck Jerry's joke factory is a sunny loft with exposed brick and a bar, a green screen and a giant, almost floor-to-ceiling F-U-C-K on the wall.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And you might be surprised to learn F-U-C-K is not his legal first name.

GONZALEZ: How do you introduce yourself?

ELLIOT TEBELE: Elliot Tebele.

GONZALEZ: What is your title?

TEBELE: I don't have one.

GONZALEZ: You don't have a title?

TEBELE: I guess I could say, you know, founder of F*** Jerry.

GONZALEZ: And then what does the founder of F*** Jerry do?

TEBELE: Various things.

GONZALEZ: Like - so what is...

Elliot Tebele is the kind of person who just says he does various things for a living, period - doesn't elaborate. He's kind of quiet, looks nervous and seems like he just kind of stumbled into this whole thing.

TEBELE: I started this thing when I was 20 years old, not knowing what the heck I was doing - didn't even think twice about, like, you know, posting content on the Internet. You know, it was just - came from a very innocent place. But at a certain point, you know, I did notice that it potentially could become something.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Elliot has actually built his following into many somethings. He created a company that does video ads, social media, documentaries. You may have heard about the ill-fated Fyre Festival. They helped promote it. They bring in millions of dollars. Elliot also launched a board game based on popular memes, and he is the part owner of a tequila company.

GONZALEZ: And Elliot does not consider sharing other people's memes theft. He says he's a curator, and there are a lot of curators on the Internet. Also, he did start crediting some people a couple years ago.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But after the F F Jerry campaign, brands like Comedy Central and Bumble pulled their ads, and 300,000 people unfollowed F Jerry.

TEBELE: I walk down the street, and I feel like people are looking at me like I'm a - you know, like an asshole fraudster-type person when in reality, I know I'm not at all. And just, like, that whole misconception of who I am as a person from all this is what sucks the most to me. So me personally - my reputation, you know?

GONZALEZ: Does this make you sad?

TEBELE: I don't know.

GONZALEZ: You don't know?

TEBELE: No.

GONZALEZ: No? Oh, you look sad.

TEBELE: No, I'm just saying I don't understand it or...

GONZALEZ: Elliot actually did seem truly upset about this campaign. And to maybe take his side for just a moment, when Elliot started doing all of this, the rules around crediting were kind of unclear. But it is hard to be too sympathetic. Elliot has done some edgy things with other people's content. Like, for a while, Elliot was using other people's funny posts about their drunken nights to advertise his tequila - like, screenshotting some other person's funny post and then slipping his brand into the caption without even asking them if they liked his tequila.

TEBELE: So I mean, you could call that an ad, in a sense, but I don't see that as an ad. But I see how maybe that's gray. And we've - you know, we're stop - we're not - no longer doing that. So...

GONZALEZ: But you genuinely - like, you didn't think that it was an ad?

TEBELE: I don't consider that an ad, no.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Elliot says he has been evolving with social media norms. Because of the whole everyone unfollow Frick Jerry campaign, he's asking people for permission to post their material. But Megh Wright, who started the whole campaign, and a bunch of other Internet humorists and funny people say that's still not enough.

GONZALEZ: But to the people who say, well, why not pay people for your content - like, you're crediting them. You're asking for consent now. But why not just, like, write them a check?

TEBELE: It's a media - I guess it's - you could call it a media company. I mean, are you guys paying me for this interview? No.

GONZALEZ: We're not allowed to. So is it - should we say that, like, paying people for content is not something that you are currently planning or - I mean, I don't - I just - you kind of just gave, like, a - I don't really know how to characterize what you said.

TEBELE: Yeah. I mean, it's not no. That's for sure. Like we keep saying, this is, like, an ever-evolving thing. For now, we have the consent policy in place. You know, next week it might be, you know, payment. Who knows?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Elliot is considering paying people, which is a big deal to go on the record about because it would mean changing his whole business model. And if they did do it, what would that mean? How would that look - they go back and pay everyone since 2011? Does he only pay the new memers (ph) and totally forget about all the gems that got him there? And would it even be enough for the Internet? What is the fair price for a good meme?

GONZALEZ: And we should point out that a lot of brands and accounts and people do what Elliot does. News sites aggregate funny tweets. Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram itself - these are all platforms that are profiting off of our free, voluntarily uploaded pictures.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This fight is ultimately about something much bigger than F Jerry and Elliot Tebele. It's about who on the Internet profits from all the funny, pretty, gross, weird, interesting things we upload every day.

GONZALEZ: Maybe everyone should be paid for everything we post.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm ready.

GONZALEZ: We await our checks, Instagram.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: We're going to be rich.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: We're going to live like kings.

GONZALEZ: The snozberries taste like snozberries.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hey, that's my line.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Prove it. Prove it. Prove it's your line.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Damn it. I guess it's Willy Wonka's. Actually, it's Roald Dahl's line.

GONZALEZ: Send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org - and send us your memes. Attribute them, please. But we want to hear from all of our funny listeners. We're @planetmoney on Instagram and Twitter.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Just give me one dank meme.

GONZALEZ: And you should really see this picture of Kanye kissing Kanye, so we're going to send you to the source - to Jen Lewis's Instagram account. She is @thisjenlewis. It looks so real. It is hilarious.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And PLANET MONEY has videos. This week's is an unflinching arthouse portrait of the tooth fairy. See them at npr.org/planetmoneyshorts.

GONZALEZ: Today's show was produced by Darian Woods. Bryant Urstadt edits our show. And Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Special thanks to Eden Dranger and Chris Sprigman's co-author on that joke theft paper, Dotan Oliar.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Thanks for listening.

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