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
    Brad Eleven, 31 Jan 2008 @ 9:23am

    lawsuits => lawyers

    Although we say, for example, that Carlos Mencia sued Joe Rogan, it was Carlos' lawyers who filed suit. It follows that it is generally the lawyers' idea to take legal action.

    My younger brother is a successful stand-up comedian. He went to Los Angeles a few years ago, and left for two reasons: (1) unknown comics get paid, at most, $100 per show--and getting on at all is quite a feat in itself (2) three of his best jokes showed up in Jay Leno's monologues.

    I was indignant. He was realistic. Comedy writers like to watch comedy, and they tend to forget where they heard jokes, or they may confuse memory with inspiration. He knew that he had plenty more jokes in him, but he didn't like L.A. He makes a comfortable living in the South, where people are willing to pay more than $10 each admission and to buy high-priced drinks, so that the comics can be paid well.

    It does seem odd that comics would sue. It doesn't seem odd that anyone with lawyers on retainer would sue. That's ... why ... you ... pay ... them ... in ... advance.

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