Comedians and writers can make a living off of writing original jokes, but not all jokes can be copyrighted. U.S. copyright laws require that an item must be original and fixed in some tangible form to be eligible for copyright protection, so jokes that are only uttered verbally are ineligible. However, written jokes can be copyrighted in some circumstances.
Videos, books and recordings of jokes are eligible for copyright protection because these media record the jokes in some tangible form. Jokes must also be original. You won't be able to copyright a minor variation of someone else's joke, and generalized humorous observations might not be eligible for copyright protection.
The fair-use exception to copyright laws allows short excerpts of copyrighted items to be used for educational use, as well as for parody, scholarly review and similar purposes. Because many jokes are short, this poses a problem. Another comedian, for example, could perform a comedy routine parodying your joke without being subject to claims of copyright infringement. For this reason, it's wise to copyright only longer jokes such as humorous essays or collections of jokes.
U.S. copyright laws grant automatic copyright protection to any copyright-eligible item created after January 1, 1978. You don't have to register your copyrights to assert your rights to a joke, and you don't have to display a copyright symbol. However, it is much easier to enforce your copyrights in court and to deter copyright thieves if there is a public record of your copyright. Moreover, because many comedians recycle the jokes of other comedians, having a registered copyright gives you more legal potency when providing notice that your joke is copyrighted .
To register copyrights to your joke, navigate to the U.S. Copyright Office's Electronic Copyright Office. Fill out the form that applies to the medium in which your joke is fixed. For example, a joke published in a book is eligible for protection using literary Form TX, while a joke that is on video requires Form VA. Fill out the form in its entirety and attach a copy of the medium in which the joke is fixed. You can send this to the copyright office as an electronic file or mail it to the address listed on the form. You will have to pay a filing fee, and when your copyright is accepted, you will receive notification from the copyright office.
- The Lawyers Weekly: Copyright in Jokes
- TechDirt: No Laughing Matter -- Can You Copyright a Joke?
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- Principles of Copyright Law; Roger Schechter et al.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.