The James Corden Plagiarism Controversy

From a plagiarism standpoint, this has been a very bad week for comedian and host of The Late Late Show, James Corden. 

On Tuesday, accusations were leveled against Corden that he had retold a joke originally performed by Ricky Gervais in 2018

Specifically, Corden was talking about the recent news of Elon Musk purchasing Twitter and, as part of it, how people take tweets personally even if they weren’t intended for him.

To that end, he likened Twitter to a public square where someone found a notice for guitar lessons posted and took offense because they didn’t want guitar lessons.

The problem, as many pointed out, was the Ricky Gervais told almost the same joke in 2018, including the comparison to a public square and a notice for guitar lessons. 

Corden, for his part, apologized for the plagiarism, saying that he “indadvertently told a brillian Ricky Gervais joke on the show”. 

Gervais took the dispute in stride, saying that it was most likely someone on Corden’s writing team that “’came up with it’ for him” and that it was unlikely he would knowingly copy such a famous routine. 

While that seemed to be an amicable ending for Corden, the allegations didn’t end there. Shortly after much of the Corden/Gervais controversy died down, another allegation revived, this one comparing a joke Corden in 2017 to an earlier joke by comedian Noel Fielding

Though the allegation was almost 5 years old, it began to make the rounds anew, including Fielding’s tweet acknowledging that it was his material.

Though the allegation isn’t new, its revival puts Corden in a bad light, as a comedian who has stolen at least twice from his fellow British comics. 

However, the situation is likely much more complicated than that, especially when you compare this to case to previous joke plagiarism scandals.

No Laughing Matter

As we discussed previously, jokes typically enjoy very limited legal protection. Though there certainly is copyright protection in jokes, as we see in the comedians suing Pandora and other streaming services, that protection is generally very thin. 

The issue is the Idea/Expression Dichotomy, which means that, while the specific expression of a joke can be protected, the idea behind it cannot. Since, in general, joke theft is more about taking the idea of the joke than the exact expression, copyright doesn’t apply.

According to a 2008 study, comics have responded to this by establishing community norms around using each other’s joke. With limited recourse in the courts, comedians often turn to shaming and ostracizing to punish accused joke thieves.

In this context, the Corden case is unusual for two reasons:

  1. Allegations Were Made By Fans: In both cases, the allegations were not made by the comedians that were copied, but by fans who noticed the similarities. In both cases, the comedians that were copied haven’t pushed the issue very hard.
  2. The Allegations Are Near Verbatim: In particular with the most recent allegations, the copying isn’t simply the idea, but much of the word choice, including some details that go well beyond simple coincidence.

This means that, theoretically, there could be a legal issue here if Gervais wanted to make it one. However, he doesn’t appear interested in pushing this, even going as far as to remove a tweet about it saying he was starting to “feel bad” for Corden.

The reason for that is actually pretty straightforward, it’s most likely that Corden wasn’t actually the one that committed the plagiarism in either case.

The Big Wrinkle

When Gervais put the blame on someone on Corden’s writing team, he likely hit the nail on the head. Shows like The Late Late Show usually have whole teams of writers, and Corden is actively performing jokes written by other people.

In short, Corden was likely unaware of the origins of the joke and wasn’t the one that put it in the script for the episode. 

We saw something similar happen last year when James Rolfe, best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd, was accused of plagiarizing one of his Monster Madness episodes. However, it turned out that it was a writer at the multichannel network he was working with, Screenwave, that had copied the text. 

The anger and outrage ultimately landed on Rolfe, both as the narrator of the episode and the face of the channel, but he wasn’t the one actively responsible for the plagiarism.

Corden is in a similar situation. It is his reputation that is ultimately damaged by this, and he will ultimately bear any consequences that come from it.

However, it seems that those consequences won’t be coming from his fellow comedians, and the question is whether fans will remember this incident or care about it if they do.

Ultimately, this is likely to fade for Corden. As it drops from the headlines, it will also drop from the minds of all but his most staunch critics. As such, there will likely be little to no long-term impact for him.

However, that doesn’t mean that he and others should be dismissive of the lessons learned.

Bottom Line

This case is a reminder. If you are a public figure and are having others write content for you to present, you need to be mindful of plagiarism.

This is regardless of whether you are a late night host, a news presenter or something entirely different. Words that carry your name, either because they are spoken by you or published under your name, can haunt you regardless of who actually wrote them.

At the end of the day, the person who speaks the words or prints the words under their name bears the responsibility for them. It doesn’t matter if it was written by a ghostwriter, a team of named writers or even an AI.

While cases such as this one would be difficult to detect, even with anti-plagiarism technology, it is still important to perform due diligence and try to prevent as many of these issues as possible.

Unfortunately, very few actually do this and, because of that, cases like this one are far too common. 

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free