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Sarah Daffy

Are jokes copyrighted?

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Have you ever heard the joke about the cowboy who gets the horse from the preacher that will only stop and go if you say "Amen!" or "Praise the Lord!" and when the cliff is approaching the horse won't stop until the cowboy prays a prayer and says "Amen!", then accidentally says "Praise the Lord!" when the horse stops?  Well, I wanted to do something like that in my book where the horse only stopped and went with phrases like that, but I don't know if the joke is copyrighted.

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You can probably use it if it is not the joke created or/and used by a comedian in their stand up routines. Look up the joke and see where it can be found online. If it is in the public domain and no comedian is mentioned as its author, then it is likely not copyrighted.

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Posted (edited)

Actual punchlines aren't copyrightable, as many of the "new" jokes we hear are actually the same old ones we've heard for years, only with a new coat of paint, and the serial numbers scraped off. However, copying specific comedy material is verboten, and if it's already been published in an actual work somewhere, you might get into some real trouble.


Fortunately, there's a convenient way to deal with this and still get all that you want...


First thing: Almost every joke we hear has been endlessly recycled and mutated from old ones, so we laugh at the same humor patterns (there are roughly 10 or 15 of them) over and over. While there are occasionally truly original jokes, most are formulaic. If you learn how formula humor works, you'll be able to categorize most jokes into one of the patterns, and even sometimes anticipate punchlines. (This is both a blessing and a curse...)


Second thing: if you've already heard the joke before, chances are, a lot of your readers have already heard it too. That means it won't be funny if you use it directly anyway, so it's best if you don't. (Your friends may chuckle politely when you tell them a joke they've already heard; readers may not be so kind. People are much meaner when doing things behind our backs...)


SOLUTION: since most jokes are already recycled, and we don't recognize them when they're adequately mutated from the ones we've already heard, then in order to be funny, you'll want to take the basic idea, but change it enough that we don't immediately recognize it. In this way, you make it funny to everybody, and you avoid accidentally making too close a copy of what may already have been published somewhere.


So perhaps, instead of bringing a horse anywhere near a cliff, use some completely different animal, that may react in a totally different manner, in a way that has completely different consequences. Just make sure that the consequences are really significant, and do exactly the worst unexpected thing they can accomplish.


Frankly, this one horse joke has been so used, used,used,used,used,used, and USED in exactly the same way for so long, I'm surprised someone hasn't had the imagination to change it around a little.  (It seems to be the only joke that defies mutation.) I think you're the one to show everyone else that it can be done. (Then the rest will realize they were merely horsing around, or perhaps only being a part of a horse...)


And you won't have to worry if you're copying somebody...



Edited by Wes B
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