Can Therapeutic Techniques Be Copyrighted?

By Trent Jonas

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 guarantees the ability of creators to profit from their original work. However, the act restricts the type of material that can be copyrighted. A therapist who develops an original technique may enjoy such protection if she is careful to put her ideas and techniques into a copyrightable form.

Copyrightable Works

The first threshold a work must cross for copyright protection is originality. Under U.S. law, however, originality is broadly defined; a modicum of creativity is all that is needed for a work to be original. The second, and often more difficult hurdle, is fixing the original work in a tangible medium. This means that others need to be able to perceive and refer back to it. Examples of tangible media include photographs, videos and written works, even if they are saved in a digital format.

Works Not Subject to Copyright Protection

A mere idea, even if it is the idea for something tangible, such as a book, is not copyrightable; nor are concepts and discoveries. Things that are familiar or commonplace, such as words, phrases or symbols, may also be excluded from copyright protection. Copyright protection attaches to the work that is fixed in the medium, not to the idea for the work. You may be a creative genius who rivals Michelangelo, but until your painting has been "fixed" onto the ceiling, it is not protected by copyright law.

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A Therapeutic Technique May Be Copyrightable

A therapeutic technique is not copyrightable in the form of an idea, or something a therapist simply "knows" how to do. Once it is fixed in a tangible medium — recorded in a video or written on paper, for example — copyright protection may be available to the creator of the therapeutic technique. Pet therapy programs have been copyrighted as well as dance and mime routines, which may be analogous to therapeutic techniques that involve physical movement.

Copyright Registration

Copyright protection becomes available once an original work is fixed in a tangible medium; no further action is necessary. For example, original dance choreography is copyrighted after it is written down, plotted in computer software or filmed. Once the work is in a tangible medium, it is protected. The copyright holder may take the extra step of registering her copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Doing so makes it easier to prove the existence of a copyright but affords no greater protection; however, registration enables the copyright holder to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

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