What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

by Lee Carroll
An original work is protected by copyright the moment you put it in tangible form.

An original work is protected by copyright the moment you put it in tangible form.

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Certain original, creative works are entitled to copyright protection. Eligible works include literary compositions, such as books, articles, screenplays and poetry; musical compositions; sound and film recordings; and original art work, such as paintings and drawings. Copyright protection exists from the moment the work is fixed in tangible form, and it grants the creator specific rights: namely, the right to prevent others from using copyrighted works without permission and the right to sue infringers for damages. Trademarks and patents afford another type of protection in limited situations where copyright isn’t available. In other cases, an idea or work might not be eligible for any of these protections.

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Ideas cannot be copyrighted, even if they are written down or otherwise fixed in tangible form. If the idea is put into a tangible form, such as a written description or a drawing, the specific wording or artwork used to convey the idea is entitled to copyright protection, but the underlying idea is not. Another person can render your idea using different words or illustrations without infringing on your copyright. The U.S. Patent & Trademark office may offer protection for a finished product that is manufactured from an idea, but only certain products are protected. An attorney experienced in intellectual property law can help you protect your concepts from theft.

Names, Slogans and Logos

A name cannot be copyrighted, regardless of whether it is a personal name, brand name, website name or the name of a band or organization. Logos and slogans are not eligible for copyright protection, except in the case of logos that qualify as original art. Certain names and slogans may be eligible for trademark protection.

Recipes and Lists

A list of ingredients does not qualify for copyright protection, but complete recipes that include original mixing, preparation or cooking instructions may be eligible; similarly, a cookbook can be copyrighted. Even if a recipe is copyrighted, another person can make and market the same dish if she devices original wording and steps to describe the process. As with recipes, a list of components or supply list for a project is usually not protected by copyright, but instructions explaining how to create the project may be eligible.

Works Authored by the U.S. Government

Photographs, documents and other works that would normally be copyrightable have no such protection when the works are produced by the U.S. government. Generally, all U.S. government documents are in the public domain and thus are ineligible for copyright. Other safeguards exist for protecting secret works and those that may compromise national security.


Some people consider any work that can be browsed online to be public domain and not subject to copyright protection. This assumption is false. Viewing a book in a retail store does not give the viewer the right to take it. The ability to browse online works without the owner’s explicit knowledge does not mean the work isn’t protected. Copyright protection extends to original creative works whether they are sitting on a shelf or displayed on a website.