Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can you copyright a joke?

Dear Rich: It seems that jokes attributed to a particular comedian are copyrighted and could not for example be used in the routine of another comedian. But what about if I wanted to compile and sell a book of jokes on a particular subject, the material found say on the internet on websites not belonging to the original author, who is probably (and usually) unknown? Or just generally known to me, you know the kind you heard somewhere, passed from person to person? Actually, comedians often infringe other comic's jokes (as William Patry's thoughtful blog on the subject explains) and that activity rarely leads to legal action. (Comedians have their own system of self-regulation.) Lawsuits are much more likely to arise when a book or collection of jokes are infringed. In that case, the dispute is usually over the choice and selection of jokes -- that is, a compilation like the one you suggest -- and not necessarily about individual jokes. For example, if you had a unique collection of chicken crossing the road jokes, you might be able to stop someone who copied your collection, even if the underlying jokes are unprotectible or in the public domain. Speaking of jokes, we wanted to share our most recent favorite punchline (it's a dark joke that takes place in a bar): "Wow, Superman you're such a mean drunk."