Copyright in Jokes

Wikipedia maintains a “World’s Funniest Joke” page – of the three currently on offer, this joke, which apparently won top honours in the UK, is my favourite:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: “That’s the ugliest baby that I’ve ever seen. Ugh!” The woman goes to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You go right up there and tell him off – go ahead, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

You can never go wrong with including a monkey in a joke.  So – what intellectual property rights, if any, protect that joke?  Could the originating comedian or writer of that joke sue for copyright infringement if someone “stole” the joke?

CBC Radio’s Jian Gomeshi, on the Q program, hosted an interesting discussion on April 20, 2010 (podcast is available here – the discussion starts at about 01:45 of the episode) on the topic of copyright in jokes, and spoke with Dotan Oliar and Christopher Sprigman, the authors of the article There’s No Free Laugh (Anymore): The Emergence of Intellectual Property Norms and the Transformation of Stand-Up Comedy” (citation: 94 Va. L. Rev. 1787 (2008)).  As the abstract for the article notes:

In this paper, we analyze how stand-up comedians protect their jokes using a system of social norms. Intellectual property law has never protected comedians effectively against theft. Initially, jokes were virtually in the public domain, and comedians invested little in creating new ones. In the last half century, however, comedians have developed a system of IP norms. This system serves as a stand-in for formal law. It regulates issues such as authorship, ownership, transfer of rights, exceptions to informal ownership claims and the imposition of sanctions on norms violators. Under the norms system, the level of investment in original material has increased substantially. We detail these norms, which often diverge from copyright law’s defaults.

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Bob Tarantino

About Bob Tarantino

Bob Tarantino is Counsel at Dentons Canada LLP and focuses his practice on the interface between the entertainment industries and intellectual property law, with an emphasis on film and television production, financing, licensing, distribution, and IP acquisition and protection. His clients range from artists and independent producers to Canadian distributors and foreign studios and financiers at every stage of the creative process, from development to delivery and exploitation.

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