The Tonight Show host Jay Leno has settled a lawsuit filed against the creators of a series of joke books he claimed ripped off material from both his show and stand-up routines.Leno and his fellow plaintiffs—including NBC Studios and fellow comedians, among them Rita Rudner, Kathleen Madigan, Jimmy Brogan, Diane Nichols, Bob Ettinger and Sue Pascoe (widow of comedian Ronnie Shakes), filed the lawsuit in federal court in November 2006.
The target was Judy Brown, who edited such compilation books as The Funny Pages, Squeaky Clean Comedy, Funny You Should Know That, Getting Old Is a Joke and Joke Stew, as well as the books' respective publishers.
The lawsuit claimed the books were tantamount to copyright, trademark infringement and false endorsement, as each stolen yuk-yuk was attributed to its famous funny creator.
Under the settlement, announced Wednesday, Brown's publishers agreed immediately to cease the distribution, manufacture and sale of the joke books. The defendants will also shell out an undisclosed financial settlement to the comedians, who maintain, as they did when they first filed the suit, that they will donate the money to charity.
"I thought it was important to make it clear that jokes are protected like any other art form," Leno said of the case. "On behalf of the tremendous and talented group of writers we have at The Tonight Show and many other hardworking comedians, I'm very glad we've been able to stop this practice once and for all."
As for Brown, she issued an apology to the comics scorned.
"In my books, I have published jokes of Jay Leno and the other comedians in this lawsuit without their permission," Brown said. "I sincerely apologize for doing so. I greatly admire the creativity, wit and energy of stand-up comedians, and I recognize that comedy is as much an art form as other types of creative expression...This is why I am settling this lawsuit by agreeing never again to publish their jokes without asking their permission to do so."
All told, Brown was responsible for compiling 19 of the joke books, all of which were little more than a collection and repackaging of the comics' acts—or as the original lawsuit put it, "no more than alphabetizing original works."
NBC also sued Andrews McMeel Publishing, Sterling Publishing and Rowman & Littlefield, claiming any stolen joke of Leno's is a stolen joke of theirs. Any comic yarn spun by the host on The Tonight Show qualifies as the studio's property, and each episode since 1992 has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Both the studio and the plaintiffs' legal representation, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., have agreed to donate at least a portion of their cut in the settlement to charity, along with Leno and the other comics, all of whom chalk up the legal victory as a major step in comedians' ownership of their material.
Said Boutrous of the legal victory: "The settlement sends a strong message that the intellectual property rights of comedy writers must be respected."