Does a Copyright Protect an Author's Creative Idea?

by Grygor Scott

Copyright laws give authors and other creators property rights for their works of original authorship, including the rights to reproduce, distribute, and display their works. One of the fundamental principles of copyright law is that a copyright protects expressions but not creative ideas. Although this basic rule seems straightforward, it may be difficult to apply in some cases.

Copyright Basics

Copyrights protect original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as manuscripts and paintings. Works that qualify for copyright protection include literary and dramatic works, musical works, photographs, sound and video recordings, and architectural works. Copyright protection encompasses a work’s original expressions, not the ideas or concepts that underlie these expressions.

Ideas

The Copyright Act expressly bars copyright protection for ideas specifically stating, “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” Congress included this language in the Copyright Act because it did not want copyrights to create monopolies on ideas. The public policy underlying copyright laws is that copyrights encourage people to create new works by providing creators a limited monopoly on the use of their works. If copyright protection extended to ideas, authors would be able to prevent others from using their ideas to create new works, which would undermine the rationale of copyrights and have an adverse effect on U.S. commerce and society.

Expression

A copyright protects only a work’s expressions of ideas. Expressions include descriptions, discussions, explanations, and illustrations. For example, an author-illustrator has the idea to create an illustrated alphabet book for children featuring animals for each letter. A copyright would protect the book’s expressions — its specific text and illustrations. The book’s copyright would not prevent other author-illustrators from producing illustrated alphabet books featuring animals.

Idea versus Expression

For some copyrighted works, the boundary between idea and expression is blurry. Literal copying, such as a writer copying a paragraph from a source, or a merchant selling a pirated DVD of new movie, will be infringement in most cases. In contrast, using a basic idea that underlies someone else’s work, such as a novel centered on a police chief solving a small-town murder, is not infringement. Courts typically try cases in which the nature of the copying lies somewhere between these two examples. They decide how much copying constitutes infringement on a case-by-case basis. Courts take into account various factors, such as the nature and extent of the copying and the originality of the copied material. In general, they give more protection to highly creative works than to fact-based works.

Legal Protections for Ideas

Although copyright laws do not protect ideas, a person who has an idea he wants to protect has other options. The most effective way to protect an idea is to develop it so that it qualifies for copyright or patent protection. Patents protect useful, novel, and nonobvious inventions. Although developing an idea does not protect the idea itself, the resulting expression or invention developed from the idea may be more valuable than the idea. A person with an idea may also protect it by requiring other parties to sign a confidentiality agreement before divulging the idea to them. Finally, some state laws allow a plaintiff to file a theft-of-idea lawsuit alleging that the defendant stole the plaintiff’s idea.