WestLord & Associates

Things You Can’t Copyright

Protecting intellectual property, such as copyrights, can sometimes be a complex matter, further compounded by the existence of distinct protection regimes for intellectual property, including copyrights, trademarks, and patents.

According to the US Copyright Office, for something to qualify for copyright protection, it must exist in a tangible form. To elaborate:

Photo by Brett Sayles

Copyright protection, governed by Title 17 of the U.S. Code, Section 102, extends exclusively to original works of authorship that are preserved in a tangible medium (a copy). This means that the work must be recorded or written down in a form that can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated.

“Original” means merely that the author produced the work by their own intellectual effort, as distinguished from copying an existing work. The term “original” denotes that the author created the work through their intellectual effort, distinct from copying an existing work. While copyright protection may also extend to descriptions, explanations, or illustrations, the interpretation of what is and isn’t protected by copyright law can remain subject to debate.

A copyright provides the owner with exclusive rights to reproduce, sell, perform, or utilize the copyrighted work. Additionally, copyright law safeguards works that are derived from the original authorship. This means that if you create something inspired by an existing work, your derivative creation is also protected by copyright.

Exclusions from Copyright Protection

From the above definition, we can discern several elements that CANNOT be copyrighted. Understanding these exclusions is crucial for both creators and consumers of intellectual property. Here are five categories clearly excluded from copyright protection by the U.S. Copyright Office, even if they manifest as tangible expressions of ideas or thoughts:

1. Ideas, methods, or systems

  • Copyright protection does not extend to ideas, methods, or systems, as stipulated by the U.S. Copyright Office’s Circular 2.
  • This encompasses various aspects such as manufacturing, scientific or technical processes, business operations, mathematical principles, formulas, algorithms, and other operational concepts.

2. Commonly known information

  • This category embraces items considered public domain with no known authorship, including phrases like “The Sun is beautiful.”
  • Examples also encompass standardized calendars, height and weight charts, telephone directories, measurement tools, and lists derived from public documents.

3. Choreographic works

  • Unless they are captured in video or notated, choreographic works, whether original or not, remain outside the purview of copyright protection.
  • Similar exceptions apply to untranscribed speeches and various other performance types.

4. Names, titles, short phrases, or expressions

  • Catchy slogans, while not copyrightable, can often be protected through trademarks when associated with goods and services.
  • This category also covers names, titles, brief phrases, product descriptions, pseudonyms, titles of works, business names, and even recipes, excluding the mere listing of ingredients. Exceptions may apply, such as in the case of recipe compilations with substantial literary expression.

5. Fashion

  • Surprisingly, clothing and accessories (fashion) are not protected by copyright law due to their classification as “useful articles.”
  • Specific fabric patterns, may be copyrighted, but the designs of the clothing themselves cannot.
  • Notably, while clothing designs can’t be copyrighted, they can potentially be patented. Fashion designers often rely on other forms of intellectual property protection, such as trademarks, to safeguard their brand identities.