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
    Spacemonkey, 31 Jan 2008 @ 9:54am

    You're missing the real issue here, open those eye

    This has absolutely nothing to do with comedy and everything to do with human nature and commercialism.

    To simplify, telling jokes was perfectly fine until people started making money off of telling them. At the point of commercialization, THEN we had a problem. Same goes for stories, books, music, movies, software, whatever.

    What needs to happen is a clear understanding to ALL what happens when someone wants to create something, and then give it away in a commercial context (which I thought was copyright). It is rather asinine to assume that 'hey, I can burn this on my own CD, therefore it should be free" - and that is the main complaint from the people that are trying to commercialize their work.

    Ironically, the GPL does the exact same thing to software, "you can have this, and you can have this for free, all you gotta do is comply with these restrictions here" and those restrictions clearly define how you CAN and CANNOT redistribute that software. The fact that it is usually free as in beer doesn't mean you can just ignore the license of the creator.

    This is all about copyright, and usually that only seems to matter when someone is trying to make a living off of (whatever it is that they do).

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