Myers Berstein
Toll Free Communication

Who Owns 'Who's On First?'

two men arguing.jpeg

Copyrights created in times past are sometimes challenged using today's laws. This year, the rights to a classic piece of vaudeville will take center stage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's "Who's On First" skit was first performed on radio in 1938. The routine's true origins are a bit fuzzy as they are based on an old verbal misunderstandings style that dates back to the early 1900s.

If you are not familiar with the verbal barrage between a baseball manager and a new player who wants to know his teammates names, it starts something like this:

Costello: Well you know I've never met the guys. So you'll have to tell me their names, and then I'll know who's playing on the team.

Abbott: Well, let's see, we have on the bags, Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third...

Costello: That's what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.

You get the idea, even if this was before your time.

Legal action regarding the rights to the skit

The heirs of Abbott and Costello were surprised to discover that, after all these years, they might not own the rights to the skit at all. They sued the owners of the Broadway play called Hand to God in 2015, claiming that the play infringed on their copyright.

The court ruled that the heirs had no standing to file suit, and that the "Who's On First" skit has lapsed into the public domain. In April, the heirs petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the lower court's decision involving the routine. 

A question of copyright

The lawsuit is a complex story involving different copyright laws, quitclaims, and the rights of heirs - nearly as loopy as the routine itself. The lower court stated that Abbott and Costello never properly secured their copyright. They performed the skit in a 1940 Universal Pictures film. They signed an agreement with the studio that gave them the right to use the routine.

The U.S. Supreme Court may opt not to hear the case, but it serves as an example of the importance of properly protecting intellectual property rights.

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