Copy and Paste

Many years ago, a celebrated Australian merchant banker published a book of jokes he’d compiled from email contributions. Released just before Christmas, it sold by the hundreds of thousands, and the “author” must have made a small fortune from the work of others.

I always thought this a little unfair. Sure, the jokes were good, but what merit is there in just having people send in their best jokes and printing them up in a collection as your own work?

I’ll admit straight up that few of the jokes on this site are my own original work. There’s a poem I wrote years ago that I’m rather proud of, but even that is based on an old story about Lionel Murphy in a lift.

And just how do you find out the copyright holder of some ancient riddle or knock-knock joke? There are some jokes that were old when I was in primary school knocking around here. They can be found in thousands of joke collections, and I’ll bet none of them are original.

That old classic, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” has its own Wikipedia entry, which sources it to 1847, though does not suggest it is original even then, and is a joke that everybody above the age of three is assumed to know.

There may be jokes which are new and original. I don’t know of any, but they may exist.

And what about a joke is original, anyway?

The humour? Most jokes rely upon a setting that can be found in many similar examples. Or in books and plays and operas going back centuries. Give me a joke and I’ll find the same situation, the same punchline, from your grandfather’s days.

Some puns, I’ll grant you, are obviously made up on the spot. I know several characters who can unleash pun after pun on any given subject, each one worse than the last. Get a few of these chaps – they are nearly always men of a certain age – together, and you will have an event you will never forget. At least until your ribs mend.

I can tinker with a joke, reframing it, changing words and names, modifying it to make it funnier. Does that give me copyright? In theory, it is the expression of a thought that is original work, and I can blithely lift jokes from other sites, modify them just enough to have a difference in wording, and present them as my own work.

Fooling nobody.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a joke I just put up, about two old geezers each thinking themselves still young and fresh, and here’s the source, which I am quite sure is not original in itself. (No, it’s not. a quick google of the punchline and the word “dentist” gives me nearly two thousand results!) I cut and pasted the original, changed the characters around, tidied it up, added some details, but it is still recognisably the exact same joke.

My input here is in selection. The internet is full of jokes. I could gather ten thousand in a day, by simply cutting and pasting from other sites. But most of them, at least to my eyes, are lame, full of loose grammar, unfunny, or just poorly worded.

And the few good ones appear time after time. I’ve got just over a hundred jokes on this site at time of writing, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t doubled up on any of them. Ask me the same question in a year, but…

Give me a page of (say) twenty-five jokes or riddles or knock-knocks, and I’ll discard twenty of them as not worth my effort. A couple I’ll have already included, and there may be one or two that strike me as funny. And, for this site, capable of eliciting a groan.

It strikes me that someone going through this site may have the same reaction – only a handful are worth the time to click through.

Well, sorry, but that’s the way it is. This site is made up of my choice of jokes that I found funny or eye-rollingly bad. Every one of them.

They may be freely republished, using the same chain of logic that led me to publish them here. It would be nice if any republication included a link, but I cannot insist upon it, as I very rarely do it myself.

There’s one caveat, and it’s the same one I observe. Don’t just cut and paste pages and pages of these jokes, word for word. Where’s the personal input in that?

If I were to take the book of jokes I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, scan the text in, repackage it as my own work, and try to make money off it, I would fully expect Penguin Books to take me to court, and I would expect to lose and pay damages, even though every single one of the jokes it contains has come from somewhere else and been copied many times since then.

So fee free to copy these jokes, tell them to friends and family, put them up on your Facebook page or blog. They are part of our shared culture and I can lay very little claim to them. I wouldn’t want to.

Just don’t copy the whole site and pass it off as your own, okay?

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