RE: Copyright and Jokes

From: Cumbow,Robert-SEA <CUMBR[_at_]perkinscoie.com>
Date: Thu, 12 Sep 96 09:16:00 PDT

Duncan McKeever wrote:
>
> Is it possible to claim a copyright on jokes? If I compile a list
> of jokes that have their origin and are circulated in a particular
> area and are most likely isolated to that area, can I copyright them
> if I am the first to publish them? Could an individual who originally
> created the joke ever successfully present a claim? What about jokes
> that are well known and widely circulated in print and verbally.
> Could the person who first put a joke in print ever claim copyright?"

Although most jokes are quite short, they may be long enough to qualify for copyright protection. The problem would be authorship. Most jokes are created and passed on orally--not "fixed in a tanglible medium"--and thus, initially, not copyrightable. Once fixed in a tangible medium, they would be copyrightable; but the person who "first put a joke in print" is not usually the original Author of the joke, and thus is not entitled to the copyright. That person (we'll call him the "publisher") may be entitled to copyright in any original elements of the joke specifically created for his version; but unless he can make a straightfaced  claim to have created the joke in the first place, he can't pass himself off as anything more than a joint author. Someone who assembles a collection of jokes owns the copyright in the collection, though not in any individual joke unless he is also the original author of that joke.

All of this is my opinion, not legal advice and not the result of any research on the subject. Having published a compilation of jokes some years ago (long before I ever thought about becoming a lawyer), I find this a very interesting question.

Bob Cumbow
<cumbr[_at_]perkinscoie.com> Received on Thu Sep 12 1996 - 16:16:01 GMT

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