WestLord & Associates

What Is and Isn’t Protected by Copyright Law?

Copyright law provides protection for a wide range of creative works, but it’s equally important to understand what it doesn’t protect. Here, we’ll explore what copyright law does not cover, including ideas and concepts.

Are Ideas Protected by the Copyright Law? No, copyright law does not protect ideas, facts, or concepts. These elements are not considered copyrightable. However, the expression of ideas, facts, or concepts is protectable. This distinction is known as the idea-expression dichotomy.

For example, if a news article presents certain ideas and facts, anyone can use those ideas and facts to write their own article using their unique expression. What’s not allowed is copying the exact expression used by the original author to describe or explain those ideas and facts. Copyright protects the author’s specific expression, not the underlying ideas or facts.

Because ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, this encourages others to build upon existing ideas and information, fostering the creation and dissemination of new copyrighted works and promoting artistic progress.

There are instances when an idea and its expression are so closely intertwined that there’s only one or very few ways to express that idea. This is referred to as the merger doctrine. In such cases, the expression of the idea is not copyrightable. For example, there may be limited ways to explain a specific bookkeeping method or the process of making chicken soup in a recipe.

What Else Is Not Protected by Copyright Law?

In addition to ideas, facts, and concepts, copyright law generally does not protect the following:

  • Procedures, Processes, and Methods of Operation: Copyright doesn’t cover procedural instructions, processes, or methods of operation. These are typically associated with patent protection. For instance, a step-by-step guide on how to assemble a piece of furniture isn’t eligible for copyright protection.
  • Principles and Discoveries: Copyright law doesn’t protect principles, theories, or scientific discoveries. These are typically the domain of patent or scientific research protection.
  • Titles, Slogans, and Short Phrases: Short phrases, titles of works, and slogans are generally not copyrightable. They may, however, be eligible for trademark protection if they are associated with specific goods or services.
  • Lists of Ingredients: Lists of ingredients in recipes or formulas are not protected by copyright. However, the specific expression of a recipe or the unique arrangement of ingredients may be copyrightable.
  • Creations Not Fixed in a Tangible Form: Copyright requires that a work be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that purely oral or abstract ideas without a physical or digital form are not eligible for copyright protection.
  • Information of Common Property: If the information consists entirely of common knowledge or public domain facts with no original authorship, it doesn’t qualify for copyright protection. For example, a standard dictionary definition or historical facts wouldn’t be copyrightable.
  • Utilitarian Elements of Industrial Designs: While copyright can protect the artistic or decorative aspects of a design, it doesn’t protect the utilitarian or functional aspects. For instance, the aesthetic design of a lamp may be protected, but not its basic function as a source of light.
  • Familiar Symbols or Designs: Commonly recognized symbols or designs, such as a simple heart shape or basic geometric shapes, are not eligible for copyright protection. These are considered part of the public domain.
  • Mere Variations of Typographic Ornamentation: Copyright doesn’t extend to minor variations of standard typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring. It focuses on the unique and creative aspects of written or printed works.

While copyright law doesn’t protect these elements, they may be eligible for protection under other forms of intellectual property (IP) laws. For example, a slogan can be protected by trademark law, and a unique process may be patentable. Understanding the boundaries of copyright law is essential for creators and innovators to navigate the complex world of intellectual property.

Understanding these limitations of copyright protection is crucial for creators, as it helps them navigate the boundaries of intellectual property law and determine which form of protection, if any, is appropriate for their work or innovation.