Re: It's not a joke. Really,

From: Martha Luehrmann <Martha_Luehrmann[_at_]>
Date: 11 Sep 1996 17:38:03 -0700

On 9/11/96 Duncan McKeever sent in a Bill Gates joke and asked:
> Say I heard this joke and recreated it here, using my own unique choice
> of words and phrases. The original theme is not mine. Can I copyright
> this joke? Is there any precedent in a situation like this?

I'm sorry, Duncan. It IS an old joke, albeit a nice one. Your wording is perhaps the 14th variation I've seen, but then lots of people send me jokes, and I operate a kind of unofficial joke maillist. My bet is that despite your slight rewording, you ARE violating someone else's copyright because you have made and are distributing a derivative work based on their opus without their permission.

Usually the originator doesn't care much, however, so you are generally safe from an infringement charge if you just pass the joke around non-commercially. That is not always the case though. I distributed a bunch of jokes about engineers on my unofficial joke maillist and got a very sweetly and politely worded cease and desist email from Scott Adams who was the original author of one of the passages. I try to attribute authorship when I know it, but most of the time the jokes come to me without a trace of their original parentage. Anyway, I had NOT known that the piece was Scott Adams (from his book The Dilbert Principle). I must admit, if I HAD known it was Scott Adams', I would probably have blithely printed it anyway, but with attribution, and I would have still been guilty of infringing his copyright.

I will not do that any more. I still pass around jokes, but if I know they come from an originator who makes her or his living from writing, I won't pass the jokes on without permission. If I don't know that the originator is a professional writer, I'll pass the jokes on, noncommercially.   I am probably violating someone's copyright, but on the other hand, they probably don't care and it brings a bunch of people a bit of joy and laughter.

Anyway - mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. As Scott requested, I have written the people to whom I sent the engineer jokes and asked them not to pass on the Dilbert passage. I must say, the fact I got an actual personal email from Scott Adams was so thrilling that the message content was kind of lost in the euphoria!

So don't try to do a little rewording of a joke and pass it off as your own.

You could get into a lot of trouble.

Martha Luehrmann
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
MRLuehrmann[_at_] Received on Thu Sep 12 1996 - 00:44:12 GMT

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