In a very short Pro Se Complaint (below), a self-described “failed comedian” is seemingly alleging that legendary comedian Dave Chappelle saw him perform back in 2014-2015 and subsequently used a stolen joke in Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special released in March 2017.

Jokes can be copyrighted, but it’s very rare and “stealing” or “borrowing” jokes from other comedians is commonplace. Further, there’s no mention of copyright anywhere in the Complaint. Without a valid copyright registration, any potential copyright claim will go nowhere. As such, the lawsuit presumably could only proceed on the grounds of something like theft or conversion.

Under Illinois law, where the joke “stealing” allegedly occurred, a person commits theft by: (1) knowingly taking or obtaining control over another’s property, (2) without authorization (including using threats, using deception, or knowing it’s stolen), and (3) with intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property. Retelling a joke doesn’t deprive the original teller from continuing to tell the joke, so a theft claim is probably equally set for failure.

In Illinois, a Plaintiff seeking to prove conversion must establish: (1) they have a personal right to a specific piece of property; (2) they have an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the personal property; (3) they made a demand for possession of the property currently possessed by the defendant; and (4) the defendant wrongfully assumed control of the plaintiff’s property. At least in the current iteration of the Complaint, these elements have not been established.

The Complaint provides only the following limited Statement of Claim:

“Between 2014-2015 while the Defendant was working on the movie “Chiraq” in Chicago, he saw the Plaintiff performing at one or more of the four places where comedy that were within 2 miles of the location the Defendants shoot location. Then knowingly used material from the Plaintiff in a standup special without permission.”

The Complaint doesn’t include the text of either the Plaintiff’s original joke or Chappelle’s allegedly infringing joke, other than mentioning that Chappelle’s joke “was exactly 1 minute.” There’s nothing to establish that the Plaintiff holds any right in any specific piece of property and is silent as to any demand for possession. As such, a conversion claim will likely also be unsuccessful.

The Plaintiff seeks $303,030.30 in damages, more than double the statutory maximum for copyright infringement.

“The Plaintiff is seeking $303,030.30 in relief. The Defendants was paid 20 Million for the special “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by Netflix which has a runtime of 66 mins, the joke was exactly 1 minute and 303,030.30 would be what the Defendant was paid per minute.

It’s not clear that the lawsuit should even be in Indiana as the alleged acts occurred in Illinois and Dave Chappelle lives in Ohio.

Unfortunately, the Plaintiff has already spent $402 filing this Complaint and now will need to spend even more to have it properly served on Chappelle. Without seriously upgrading the sparse information in the Complaint, it’s probably all just lost money. Since we didn’t even get a joke out of the entire Complaint, I’ll leave you with a humorous quote about pro se plaintiffs by arguably our best lawyer-president (who himself was self-taught in the law):

“He who serves as his own counsel has a fool for a lawyer and a jackass for a client.” Abraham Lincoln

Stay tuned for updates.

Gatewood v. Webber Chappelle

Case Number: 2:21-cv-00186-PPS-JEM
File Date: Friday, June 4, 2021
Plaintiff: Xavier Gatewood
Plaintiff Counsel: Pro Se
Defendant: David Khari Webber Chappelle
Cause: Nothing specific, possibly theft or conversion?
Court: Northern District of Indiana
Judge: Philip P. Simon
Referred To: John E. Martin