Copyright as Killjoy: Can You Be Sued For Sharing a Joke?

Take my joke.
Please.
I could use the statutory damages.

Take my joke.

Please.

I could use the statutory damages

by Thomas James, Law Office of Tom James

You might have noticed that Spotify has removed a lot of comedy performances recently. You might be wondering what is going on. Did Jim Gaffigan offend someone? Are Kevin Hart and John Mulaney defecting to form an underground comedy railroad with Dave Chappelle? No, it isn’t either of those things. Yes, somebody probably was offended, but that is not the reason behind Spotify’s decision. It’s copyright.

The problem arises from the fact that when a company licenses the right to share recorded performances, it is really licensing the rights in at least two different works: the sound recording and the underlying composition. The performance and the thing performed. When a person writes a song, he or she owns a copyright in the composition. If someone makes an authorized recording of a performance of it, then that person owns a copyright in the sound recording. The songwriter owns the copyright in the music; the producer and performing artists own copyright in the sound recording.

In the music world, different agencies manage the licensing of these two kinds of copyrights. SoundExchange manages a lot of the licensing of sound recordings; agencies like ASCAP and BMI handle the licensing of musical compositions. Historically, performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI have focused on music. They have not collected royalties on behalf of spoken word creators. Recently, however, new organizations have sprung up to fill this need. One of them is Spoken Giants. The organization reportedly has acquired an impressive roster of clients – Jeff Foxworthy, Lewis Black, Patton Oswald, Tom Segura, the estate of Don Rickles. According to their website, the company represents tens of thousands of works.

Spotify has removed a lot of spoken word content because an impasse has been reached in negotiations over spoken word copyright licensing. The Copyright Royalties Board, pursuant to a consent decree, sets songwriter royalty rates for various kinds of uses of musical compositions, which agencies like ASCAP and BMI use when administering music licenses. Until recently, however, no one has gone to bat for writers of spoken word performances. There are no governmentally established royalty rates for them. They must be privately negotiated. Spotify has pulled many spoken word performances from its offerings because a negotiated agreement has not been reached yet.

Should your dad be shaking in his boots?

The U.S. Copyright Act allows for the recovery of statutory damages even if no actual damage can be proven to have resulted from an infringement. Liability for infringement can exist even if no one profited from it or intended to profit from it. This would seem to make everyone potentially liable for repeating a joke they heard someone else tell. Is it true? Can a person be sued for repeating a joke someone else made up?

Copyright protection for jokes

In theory, it is possible for a joke, or at least a particular telling of it, to be protected by copyright. There are some important limitations on liability, however.

Fixation

First, of course, there can be no infringement if there is no copyright. It must be established that the joke is, in fact, protected by copyright. A copyright in a work does not exist unless and until the work is fixed in a tangible medium. If you hear someone telling a joke that nobody has ever recorded or written down, and the telling of the joke was not recorded, either, then no copyright exists. No copyright, no infringement.

Originality and creativity

Copyrights cannot be acquired by copying someone else’s work. If, for example, Paula, without securing an assignment of the copyright or at least a performance license, repeats a joke she read in a book, and Henny hears and repeats it, Paula should not win if she sues Henny for infringement. The owner of the copyright in the book might have a claim, but Paula would not.

The independent creation doctrine is another obstacle to copyright protection for jokes. If two people independently create the same joke, and neither one copied the other – not even subconsciously – then they each own a copyright and neither one is guilty of infringing the other.

Public domain

If a joke is so old that the copyright has expired, then it is in the public domain. In that case, anyone can use it any way they want. Currently, the term of most (not all, but most) copyrights is 70 years plus the life of the author. In many cases, this would easily put your dad in the clear.

By the way, if you are looking for some good medieval humor, try Poggio Barcciolini’s Facetiae.

Expression vs. facts

Copyright only protects expression; it does not protect facts or information. Consequently, the facts stated in a joke, if any, are not protected by copyright. For example, consider the joke, “There is a scale that measures not only weight but also body fat, bone mass, and water percentage. Now you can choose four different reasons to be ashamed.” Most of that joke conveys factual information. That part is not protected by copyright. The only question is whether the punch line is.

Idea vs. expression

Since copyright only protects expression, it makes sense that an idea also does not get copyright protection.

The distinction between an idea and an expression might be the biggest obstacle to copyright protection of a joke there is. A situation with humorous implications is considered an unprotectable idea. This was established in the case of Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp, 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930). There, a writer sued a production company for creating a comedy show involving a Jewish man marrying an Irish-Catholic woman, with characters demonstrating stereotypical characteristics of members of those demographic groups. Although the writer had created a story based on the same premise, he lost the case. The court ruled that the ideas on which a story was based are not protected by copyright.

This can present a formidable problem for comedy writers. Even if they come up with a great idea for a joke or comedy routine, they will not be able to prevent other comedians from using it, so long as these other comedians come up with sufficiently different ways of telling it.

The idea-vs-expression dichotomy is made even more difficult to surmount by virtue of the merger doctrine. This is a legal principle that says that if there are limited ways to express an idea, the idea will merge with the expression of the idea and the expression will receive no copyright protection. The classic examples are a recipe or a set of rules for a game. A recipe is an idea. A set of rules for a game is also an idea. Therefore, to the extent a recipe merely states what is needed to know to make the concoction, it is not protected by copyright.

To the extent a rules list merely explains how the game is played, it is not protected by copyright. In these cases, the idea is said to have “merged” with the expression, so the expression does not receive copyright protection. The only expression in a recipe or a set of game rules that gets copyright protection is that which is not necessary to the preparation of the dish or the playing of the game. (This probably explains why so many recipe publishers include extraneous anecdotes and fluff in them.)

You can imagine how this could present a problem for a gag-writer. Jokes express ideas, hopefully amusing ones. For this reason, a bare-bones pun, or a one-liner like the ones that Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield would tell, are less likely to be protected by copyright than are comedy routines that involve a lot of extraneous detail.

Fair use

The Fair Use Doctrine is a defense to copyright that may present an obstacle to the enforcement of a copyright in a joke sometimes. In general, the doctrine says that people may use copyrighted material in commentary, reporting, teaching, research, and sometimes other uses, if four broadly worded factors weigh in favor of allowing such use without liability for infringement:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion copied
  • The effect of the use on the market for the work.

Unfortunately, “fair use” is not a well-defined concept. Courts are not always in agreement about how to balance these factors. Appellate reversals of district judge opinions on the matter are not uncommon.

Epitaph

Just kidding.

Recognizing the rights of comedy writers does not have to mean the death of fun. For one thing, it is important to keep in mind what “infringement” means and what it does not mean. There are lots of uses a person can make of copyrighted material without putting himself or herself at risk of being sued for infringement. If you buy a copyrighted painting or print, you can display it in your home, so long as you do not open your home to the public and you do not charge a fee for your guests to view it. The same is true of a movie on DVD. You can play a DVD recording that you purchased as many times as you want to in your own home, so long as you do not invite the public in and so long as you do not charge a fee.

Similarly, there should be no problem with re-telling a joke to family and friends in private. Although even limited reproduction and distribution of a copyrighted work can result in infringement liability, an unauthorized performance or display only becomes infringement, in the United States, when it is a public one. Re-sharing a joke in a public forum could be a problem, if none of the obstacles to infringement enforcement that I have discussed in this article apply. Re-telling a joke to members of your family or a small circle of friends for no fee, on the other hand, is not likely to get you into hot water.

Not for copyright reasons, anyway.

Minnesota attorney Thomas James is a lawyer at the Law Office of Tom James in Cokato, MN. He is the author of several law review articles and books, including E-Commerce Law and Website Law. In his spare time, he likes to look for spare time.

Author: Thomas James

Formally known as Thomas B. James or Thomas James, Tom James is an attorney at the Law Office of Tom James in Cokato, Minnesota. Copyright, trademark, business law, nonprofit organization, appeals and appellate practice. Admitted to practice in Minnesota, the Federal and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. Also a continuing education instructor.

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