How to Understand Copyright Ideas Versus Expression

By Lee Roberts

In the United States, copyright laws stem from a simple statement in the Constitution that gives exclusive rights to authors to protect their original works which, in turn, promotes the progress of science and useful arts. Copyright laws look primarily at the form of the work, to distinguish between protected and unprotected works. Copyright tries to reward individual authors while still addressing the public’s needs and concerns regarding intellectual property.


Authors acquire the rights in an original work as soon as they fix the work in a tangible form of expression. A fixed form includes standard written or drawn forms as well as those that humans cannot read or interpret directly without the aid of a machine or device. Neither lawmakers nor the courts have defined originality with precision. As a general matter, originality means the author originated a work that contains more creativity than a simple compilation of facts.

Fixed Format

You satisfy the fixed format requirement when you write your idea on paper, paint it on a canvas, record it with a camera or perform a host of other common actions to express yourself in a tangible manner. You can test if your work meets the requirement if you copy your idea into a material object that someone can read or perceive visually. Phonorecords are the means by which you can fix sounds into material objects. Statutes broadly define phonorecords to include cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs and vinyl disks.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now


Copyright laws do not protect you from other people who may copy your ideas. As a practical matter, it is very difficult to determine who may have had an idea first. It is also difficult to establish the specific content of your idea if it is not in a form that someone else can read, hear or see. Putting your unexpressed ideas into tangible form provides a set point from which the time begins to run on your exclusive rights over the work.

Using Ideas

Copyright law protects the expression of mundane ideas as thoroughly as it does extraordinary ideas. Requiring authors to express their ideas by putting them into something tangible frees everyone else to generate ideas without the fear that they will need to defend themselves against a lawsuit for infringement simply based on the similarity of ideas. Even after you express an idea in fixed form, the idea itself does not fall under copyright protection, but fixed forms that contain your idea are. Others may take the same idea and use it for their own purposes. Einstein's theory of relativity is an idea and not copyrightable, but papers he wrote about it are copyrightable. Therefore, others can use Einstein's theory and create other copyrightable essays about his theory.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Does a Copyright Protect an Author's Creative Idea?



Related articles

How to Copyright Choreography

A copyright affords protection to creators and owners of unique intellectual property that is fixed in some permanent, tangible form such as a written notation, book, video, sound recording, or drawing. To be eligible for copyright protection, your choreography must be original. Under U.S. copyright law, as soon as an original work of authorship, such as choreography, has been created in fixed form, then copyright protection exists from that time. This gives the author or his agent to rightfully claim copyright. However, it is much better to register the copyright, because it creates a public notice that you own the rights and enables you to sue in federal court if someone uses your choreography without your permission. It is important to note that choreography that has not been made into a fixed form is not eligible for copyright protection.

Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The Copyright Act of 1976, copyright holders have exclusive rights to reproduce their creations for a specific length of time. Those exclusive rights are limited by the doctrine of “fair use,” which allows for others to reproduce a work in whole or in part for use in a parody without the copyright holder’s permission, provided the parody meets certain criteria.

How to Publish and Copyright a Poem

If you are a poet, you establish copyright protection for your poem as soon as you write it down. This protection gives you the exclusive right to publish, distribute and copy your poetry. For extra protection, including the right to sue and collect damages from someone who infringes your copyright, you can formally register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office. This can be done before or after you publish your poem.


Related articles

Can Therapeutic Techniques Be Copyrighted?

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 guarantees the ability of creators to profit from their original work. However, the act ...

Video Copyright Laws

Copyright laws prohibit unauthorized copying or reproduction of original audiovisual works. In today’s digital world, ...

Copyright Laws on Exercise Routines

Title 17 of the U.S. Code extends copyright protection to original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. ...

The Disadvantages of Copyrights

Copyright is a form of protection that attaches to an original work of authorship the moment the work of authorship is ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED