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No Laughing Matter: Can You Copyright A Joke?

from the knock-knock dept

Last year there was a bit of a fuss when comedian Joe Rogan accused Carlos Mencia of stealing jokes. Amusingly, Mencia responded to the claims of plagiarism by using a copyright infringement claim to get Rogan's video of the accusation taken down. However, in a more detailed discussion of the issue, we pointed out how silly it is to claim a copyright on a joke. There are a ton of joke books out there, many of which collect all kinds of jokes that have been told by many people, without bothering to find the originator and pay them (or even credit them). In fact, with most jokes, it's not the joke that matters, but the delivery. As I noted, I had recently read Isaac Asimov's "Treasury of Humor" where he admits that almost all of the jokes are ones he heard from others -- and no one seemed to think it was infringing.

However, that didn't stop Jay Leno and some other comedians from suing a woman who published a recent joke book that included some Leno jokes. Rather than go through a lawsuit, the woman and her publisher quickly settled the lawsuit paying an undisclosed sum and publicly apologizing. This leads William Patry to put together some details of other court cases looking into the copyrights of jokes, noting that Jeff Foxworthy sued someone for using his jokes, even though he admits people send joke ideas to him that he uses.

All of this seems to be an unfortunate extension of the increasing use of copyright to "control" every last use of content. Telling jokes is a social experience, often having little to do with the material itself, and quite a lot to do with the performance and delivery. Witness the movie The Aristocrats, where the entire premise is getting a bunch of different comedians to all tell the same joke, and looking at the different performances and embellishments. No one screamed about copyright infringement in that case -- and the comedians seemed to relish the chance to tell the same joke in many different ways. It's unfortunate that we're now reaching the point that something that used to be a shared experience is also going down the path to being protected and limited.

Filed Under: carlos mencia, copyright, isaac asimov, jay leno, jeff foxworthy, joe rogan, jokes


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  1. identicon
    JoshuaBA, 31 Jan 2008 @ 9:11am

    It's not the timescale that matters

    For all the people saying that it would be okay if they had waited 10 o 20 years before using the jokes:

    Copyright doesn't last for only 10 or 20 years. It lasts for around 100 and is not likely to become shorter. So, either suing someone for copyright infringement over a joke is not acceptable, or the only jokes you ever hear will be either original to the speaker, illegal, or over a hundred years old. Gone will be improving on others' material, gone will be direct inspiration of new material, gone will be Jeff Foxworthy who will be sued into oblivion for "stealing" jokes from people who tell them to him.

    What if you come up with a joke on your own that to outsiders sounds like another comedian's joke? How do you defend yourself then?

    What about the comedy club owners? Do they then need to worry about getting sued for sponsoring and profiting from the illegal performance of copyrighted material? How many would be willing to take that huge risk?

    And if you think that comedians wouldn't do this to other comedians, you are not cynical enough. All it takes is one greedy bastard or a greedy inheritor of a comedian's estate to destroy it all.

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