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
    Foob, 4 Feb 2008 @ 3:08pm

    Don't think you quite get the analogy, Corey

    The computer consultant analogy is actually quite apt. I have a similar job, and let me tell you, I produce reams of potentially copyrightable material on each job. Every line of code, every email, every written suggestion and report is a piece of my original work.

    On what moral basis do you argue that I ought to be able to prevent anyone else from using my work once I've already spent the effort necessary to create it? They are not depriving me of anything I actually own. This, I suppose, gets to the heart of copyright law itself. I just cannot see how it is morally acceptable to encourage people to pander to the ignorant majority in the hopes of striking it rich and never working again. This is clearly destructive, not only to those people, but to art and society as a whole.

    If you have not deprived the original owner of his possession, you have not stolen, and the conflicting notion that a work could be both important enough that the creator deserves to never work again, yet unimportant enough to justify depriving all of society from using it for 100 years is obviously ludicrous. Remember, great art precedes copyright law (or law itself, for that matter). Humans will create, with or without money. It would seem to me, in fact, that money has made us less creative, since derivative, formulaic crap is most profitable.

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