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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
    ehrichweiss, 31 Jan 2008 @ 12:21pm

    Re: Joking aside

    Very good points. Steve Harvey(RIP) wrote a book many years ago that was talking about formulae for creating jokes/humor, and I've read another book(I forget the author) recently that had the same ideas: jokes really aren't that original because they all follow one of several different formulae which make the art of joke writing little more than filling in the blanks in something akin to MadLibs. One even told how you could flesh out your jokes to give them better impact. This was a freakin' formula that anyone could follow.

    Jackie "the Jokeman", had a segment at one time on if you told him the beginning of an adult joke, he could tell you the ending. I watched him do several people and no one could get one past him. If that doesn't tell you that jokes are created with a formula, I don't know what does.

    I find this very believable because I'm a professional magician, among other things, and there are literally only about 20 different actual effects in magic: production, disappearance, transposition, transportation, physical feat, etc. Everything else is just "content" i.e. you can make a card disappear, or you can make a dove disappear but each effect only has a set number of ways to be accomplished and that's pretty much it; there are exceptions but we're talking a handful compared to millions that fit the rule. Of course even with all this you will still find magicians who think that they own the rights to a particular trick/move and that they can enforce limits on its use, to which I have to say that *most* are full of shit.

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