If You Like It Then You Should Have Put RT On It

22/07/2011 09:47 BST | Updated 20/09/2011 10:12 BST

The Beckhams' decision to go against the habit of a lifetime and give their child a daft name naturally prompted many jokes on the webosphere, one of which was this:

"Harper Seven is how I'd imagine Beckham would announce what time she was born."

Nice gag, eh? And the Daily Telegraph agreed with me, going so far as to include it in this piece on the online reaction to Baby Beckham's name - with a lovely credit to me (for I am @jazzchantoozie on Twitter).

My delight at seeing my Twitter handle in the Daily Telegraph was, unfortunately, only surpassed by the mortification I felt when I was alerted to it. Because there was just one small hitch.

It wasn't my joke.

The Harper Seven gag was, in fact, written by @kevmears - and I had merely retweeted it. Or to explain to non-Tweeters: I tweeted Kevin's joke in full, with his name attached, but put the letters RT (meaning "retweet") in front of it, plus the word Ha!' (meaning 'I found it funny').

This is normal Twitter etiquette - to attribute jokes, links and suchlike to those who created them originally - and there are Twitter profiles like @RTisbetter and @ThiefPolice devoted to ensuring that this happens, trawling Twitter for virtual wrists to smack.

But since the advent of the internet, and specifically since the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the problems of joke attribution and joke "theft" - the passing off of someone else's joke as your own - have not become a minefield so much as a minefarm which grows mines in lots of fields.

BOOM! There's your joke - not officially "retweeted" with your name still attached, but copied and pasted into a brand new tweet so it looks like that person thought of it, not you. (Even national treasure Billy Bragg has done this: apologising for this joke after he was swiftly informed that it was originally made by Twitter user @moc_moc_a_moc.)

BOOM! There's the gag with the visual punchline doing the rounds on the internet, but sadly no longer with your name in any way attached (which is what happened to @mrdavidwhitley's wonderful Rebekah Brooks joke here).

BOOM! There's the funny picture you created in Photoshop - but guess what?! Someone's taken the trouble to right-click and copy-and-paste it into their Twitpic stream. So now it looks like they did it, or possibly Just Found It Randomly On The Internet - and to be fair, once an image is doing the rounds, they probably have. (If you're lucky, it might even fool people. Just ask @themanwhofell, for example, who created this spoof image. "Lots of people thought the Photoshopped T-shirt was real," he says. "Within an hour it had gone viral. Hundreds of thousands of people had seen it and were congratulating Sir Ian on his witty choice of attire.")

Yes, ladies and gentlemen: there are millions of funny lines and funny pictures being circulated around the internet and on text messages AS WE TWEET - but the people who came up with them aren't being recognised for their creations.

Which obviously leads us to ask: who cares?

Because most people don't care. Most of the people who do the above - especially pasting jokes on Facebook walls - aren't mad or bad. They're just normal people. Why, you might even be married to one. So while obviously some people post jokes to gain kudos, I'd argue that it doesn't occur to most people that a joke 'belongs' to anyone. No, those who do care - and understandably so - are the professional comedians and comedy writers whose reputations and careers depend on the jokes they produce.

That's why Keith Chegwin's tweeting of other people's jokes caused such a furore earlier this year - because as a professional entertainer (and I think that's Cheggers' job description), he should, in theory, understand what comic Simon Evans politely put it to him: "These jokes are by professional comedians and it's simply not on to use them in this way." In short: there is a gentlemen's agreement that in the world of comedy you don't use other people's material. Because not only are jokes are a comedian's currency - if they're out there doing the rounds and/or coming out of other people's mouths, they (and you) lose value - but they take little things like, y'know, skill, and thought, and talent to create.

Before the Internet, you could probably use other people's jokes and they'd never know. On top of that, comedy was more regional - and a comic could perform the same gag in Bolton as in Folkestone, say, confident that neither audience would have heard it. But now, good jokes spread like wildfire on the internet, and in doing so, swiftly become 'public property'. Great gags have always done so, of course - who knows who wrote the 'Why the long face?' joke? - but the web means it's happening on an unprecedented level. Many comedians have become resigned to this situation - says @Its_Death: "People copy and paste my jokes most days. I've learned to live with it otherwise I'd spend the time screaming" - and as a result, some are wary of tweeting so many gags. Gary Delaney, for example, is just one comedian who restricts the jokes he puts on Twitter these days, saying: "I post far less than I used to - and only jokes I consider surplus to requirements, rather than A-grade stuff. It's a shame."

So jokes and funny images do the rounds, and while the professional entertainment world may care, @JoePublic doesn't. It would be nice to think that some sort of new, online etiquette could become the norm when it comes to crediting creative content, but it seems that no amount of admonishing or pointing out that "actually, y'know, @SoAndSo said that first" will change things. Not just because the horse has well and truly bolted and is now standing at the other end of the minefield chewing grass and eyeing us suspiciously; but because our need to share jokes and stories is, ultimately, a very human one. Of course it would be wonderful if all art was credited as it should be; but it never will be, and we're fighting a losing battle if we think otherwise. A losing battle with horses in minefields. Yeah. Just think about that for a moment.

To my mind, comedians are probably best off realising that - as Have I Got News For You and Horrible Histories writer Dave Cohen points out in this Chortle article - a) jokes will always get nicked and b) performance and execution are also key to success (and that's something that can't be mimicked online).

And remember Bruno Kirby's excitement in When Harry Met Sally, when he gushes "No one's every quoted me back to me before!"? People may not know or care about their sources, but the very fact that you've delighted or excited them enough that they're passing your words/picture around like new folklore is surely a sign of success. When I saw the uncredited joke "'I do a great impersonation of Imran Khan's ex-wife.' 'Jemima?' 'No, I just do her voice'" posted by my sister on her Facebook wall, for example, I immediately alerted Twitter funnyman @jacques_aih - who I knew had written that joke. Not because I thought he should be angry about it, but because to me, it was evidence that he had 'arrived'. As comedian @TonyCowards says: "My record is 45 minutes from me tweeting a joke to one of my mates telling me they'd been texted it." Perhaps that's the record we should all be aiming to beat?

Post-script: For another Twitter joke 'stealing' story, check out this excellent blog post by @vivmondo