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In one of my stories, I have a character who is a bit of a smart ass, always cracking jokes at the expense of others and sometimes even himself. I often get inspired by things I find on the internet and incorporate them into the story, either by modifying them, building on them or changing their core to fit the context within my story better.

Is this a bad idea to do? It's not like I'm stealing entire stand-up comedy routines or jokes attributed to a famous person, I'm just "stealing" a little joke here and there from "randos". It's not like I can give proper credit to strangers anyway, so what should I do? Or does it not matter if you're inspired by jokes or situations you hear about?

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    Define 'bad idea'. Legally? Ethically? Narratively?
    – user16555
    Aug 30 '18 at 4:40
  • Pertinent whether the character thinks up the jokes on the spot, or merely applies an “oldie” to a new situation.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 30 '18 at 12:19
  • One of my favorite stories - in fact, the one that made me want to start writing - is Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly Too." The title is the punchline to a joke that appears in the story. So I'd say it's not forbidden by the Story Gods. Aug 30 '18 at 12:56
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Stealing jokes, while not exactly uncommon, is really despised and looked down upon from within the comedian community.

It's hard to tell from your description whether you're really just "inspired" by what you see, or actually taking other people's signature lines and putting them in your characters' mouths, but either way, it seems like something you don't feel good about, so maybe that's a sign. Legally, I'm guessing you're on safe ground, but think how you might feel if you were the "rando" being ripped off. I'm not a comedian, but I've seen material I originated being used elsewhere, without attribution, and I didn't feel great about it...

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If a joke is a century old and you've heard it told a hundred times, you can reuse it. You can modify it, you can build on it - by this point it's not "owned" by anyone. Trouble is, by this point your readers have also heard this joke a hundred times. Sometimes it can work - in a sci-fi setting, an old joke might have changed to accommodate aliens, new technology etc., but the readers can still relate to it because of the underlying familiar shape. This is something that happens to jokes in real life too - they change over time. (Actually, not only sci-fi setting. You can do the same with a setting that's far in the past. Mel Brooks did it sometimes.)

If a joke is not that old, it's not good to steal it, as @ChrisSunami points out. And you really don't need to be doing that. If your character is to be funny not only in-story, but to the readers, they need to be original. If you found something funny on the internet, chances are your readers have too, and a character who's made of not-so-fresh jokes isn't really funny.

Instead, try to put yourself in the character's situation, and find what you can say that's funny in the way you need. That takes more effort, but the result is a character that's your own, with their own unique voice, and with jokes that are tailored for the situation, instead of being rather generic. They might not even be very funny in and of themselves, but funny because of the particular situation, and how it all fits together.

And if sometimes you absolutely can't make up a joke of your own? Once you've established your character, sometimes you can cheat: once in a while, you can tell instead of showing. "Alex was telling one of his jokes again."

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Being inspired is a thing; copying entire jokes or catch-phrases may be overdoing it, and rightly be called stealing.

I agree with @Chris Sunami that it would already seem that your on the safe side, legally, but morally you're in a bit of a grey area.

It's true that some jokes become commonplace after a while and that you can't possibly credit anonymous strangers over the internet. If you want your character to look like a smart ass, you can safely watch comedians shows for reference, but that should end there.

It's good to have a good understanding of comedy in general, but probably it would be even better knowing how make a good joke in the specific situation your character finds himself in. Your jokes will be better if they are highly specific to the current context - not a fat chance you'd find anything suitable around.

So, maybe it would be productive to look upon other similarly quick-tongued characters in the media (be it films, books or comics) and get an idea of how they do work, in order to remake that attitude in your own way?

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It IS a bad thing to do, and possibly a violation of copyright you can be sued for if you make a profit from it.

I am not a lawyer, but I have dealt with copyright issues in my profession.

Dismissing people as "randos" is not a strategy that works in the court, it makes no difference to the court prosecuting a violation of copyright if the owner is famous or not. The same laws apply.

If the joke you steal exists in one place and can be attributed to a single person at the time you steal it, well, they own the Copyright on it (in the USA). The copyright exists the moment a work is completed, if somebody tweets an original joke, just because it was made public, does not mean it is free to use for the public. Nor do they have to put a "copyright notice" on it.

Your best protection for stealing a joke is to prove before you stole it that it could be found in multiple places on the Internet without any attribution to a single person. You can't attribute a joke to anybody if there are multiple plausible authors. The author is plausibly NOT protecting his intellectual property since you can find the joke in multiple sources.

That's it. If you can't find the joke anywhere else, don't steal it verbatim. After that, it depends on whether you change it sufficiently. Copyright protects words, not so much ideas; but I still cannot take a best selling Harry Potter novel, change the name to "Haro Putter" and studiously go through and change a word in every sentence, and hope to publish that as 99c book. A judge or jury would see through that and uphold the copyright violation, even though every sentence and name is different. You can steal the idea of the joke, whatever surprise twist it relies on to be funny, and write your own joke that way. Unless it is a play on words or homonyms. But you need the typical not-famous "randos" on the jury to agree your joke is just similar to the original, and not a thinly disguised rip-off of the original.

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  • If you quote a reasonably long joke word-for-word, you're infringing copyright. If you take the structure and idea of the joke, and use your own words, you're not. In some cases, you'll have to use some of the same words, because that's how the joke works (puns are an example), and that's probably OK. If you can find something in multiple places on the internet without attribution, that doesn't mean it's safe. Copyright remains whether protected or not (unlike trademarks). It could be all over the place, and the person the copyright holder decides to go after is you. Aug 30 '18 at 20:57
  • @DavidThornley I have read that finding multiple unattributed exact copies in public use, with a search that does not reveal anybody claiming copyright, is a defense against infringement. If a reasonable search for a copyright owner does not produce anybody claiming ownership, how could we know? But I am not a lawyer, so of course, the best thing is to not copy word-for-word, and just steal the general idea, which is legal.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 30 '18 at 21:09
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There's an old joke about two Vaudevillian Comedians (often George Burns and Jack Benny, who were very good friends, and Benny's character was notoriously cheap):

"George Burns, you dirty scoundrel," Jack Benny shouts as he entered the room, "I heard your elephant joke from last nights show. That's my joke, you stole it from me!"

"Jack," Burns responds, "I stole that joke from the local paper. How could I possibly steal it from you?"

"Because I stole it from the early edition!"

Moral of the story is that comedians do this all the time. Depending on the nature of the joke, or the riff, it can be pretty nebulous. Puns would definitely be immune to this scenario, but if you're going to take it from a stand-up, or the joke was famously attributed to a comedian's act, better be ready to do an attribution. "Who's On First" is probably the most famous routine of Abbot and Costello, but the routine was not used by them... they just had the best known version. Expect any routine of any similar theme to have some reference to Abbot and Costello. You can even have your characters know the reference and make fun of it's lack of originality from the character who told it.

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I think the real question here is why are you putting the jokes in. If you are trying to characterize someone, then the public domain is open to you. There are lots of jokes to steal. They might not be funny to the reader, but the reader will clearly recognize them as jokes. Using these jokes may make the character come off as lame. It helps if the other characters laugh and say that he is funny. Maybe you can also change the jokes around a bit to get a laugh.

The other reason for jokes is to make the book funny. If humor is one of your main promises of the writing then you can't steal jokes. Any reader that recognizes even one will groan and you will loose points. Even worse if the reader knows exactly where the joke came from. If you want to write a funny book, then you have to be original, there is just no getting around that.

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