On the stealing of jokes and cryptomnesia

December 26, 2016 | By | Reply More

What is a trope? The website TV Tropes explains:

A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell.

How often have you watched a new movie or TV show and noticed that it is drenched in tropes? I notice this constantly. TV shows and movies resemble other movies and shows so often that some have written, tongue in cheek, that there are actually only an extremely limited number of plots. Are there only seven plots? Are there only six plots?

Consider this passage from an article in The UK Guardian:

Putting – maybe – an end to a debate that has been ongoing for millennia, the researchers found there are “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”. These are: “rags to riches” (a story that follows a rise in happiness), “tragedy”, or “riches to rags” (one that follows a fall in happiness), “man in a hole” (fall–rise), “Icarus” (rise–fall), “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise), and “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall). The most successful – here defined as the most downloaded – types of story, they find, are Cinderella, Oedipus, two sequential man in a hole arcs, and Cinderella with a tragic ending.

Imagine how difficult it is to come up with new creative material that hasn’t ever been created before by someone else? What’s the best approach? To live in a bubble so that you don’t accidentally create what you once heard but forgot that you heard? That would be impossible, of course. And that leads to the concept of Cryptomnesia:

Cryptomnesia occurs when a forgotten memory returns without it being recognized as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. It is a memory bias whereby a person may falsely recall generating a thought, an idea, a song, or a joke,[1] not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.

There is no doubt that even musicians and artists who don’t steal songs and images “steal” bits and fragments of ideas from each other. Artists of all types have been exposing each other to ideas and works from the beginning of time, and as long as it is not flagrant, we write it up on the catchphrase of “influence.” How much is too much to borrow and use? The courts are cluttered with cases trying to determine this.

In the context of comedy, theseissues are discussed in this excellent video by Will Schoder, “Why Joke Theft Is The Ultimate Comedy Crime” Money line at 15 min mark: Although you can’t pick up a violin and sound like a virtuoso, you can steal a joke and sound like a great comedian.


Category: Art, Communication, Intellectual property, music

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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