Who Owns a Joke? Copyright Law and Stand-Up Comedy

Scott Woodard · 21 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 1041

Abstract

Copyright laws are touted as the highest legal authorities by which artists can protect their works against all comers. However, when an artist’s work fails to fit neatly into the statutory parameters needed to acquire copyright protection, that artist could receive no safeguards to ensure that their works will not be misappropriated by others.

This article undertakes a comparative analysis of two copyright regimes—from the United States and the United Kingdom—and measures their relative similarities and differences. From this comparison, this article explains how stand-up comedians, a group of artists who have traditionally believed their work was incapable of receiving copyright protection, could receive copyright protection for their jokes in both jurisdictions.

Following an analysis of copyright law’s initial requirements in both jurisdictions, this article examines the means and methods comedians could use to protect their jokes. Subsequently, this Articles examines the complications comedians could face should they enlist the law’s assistance. Specifically, this portion of the Article examines how comedic norms could clash with the above-mentioned jurisdictions’ various statutory mandates and how comedians may falter when industry norms interact with copyright law.

This Article’s goal is to provide a comprehensive comparison of US and UK copyright law and its implications for stand-up comedians’ ability to own their own creations. Further, this Article is meant to act as a road map for comedians and relevant practitioners on how to successfully protect a comedian’s creative product and how to successfully pursue legal remedies against alleged infringers.