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Ideas and other things that copyright doesn’t protect

If you’re an artist, or a creator of any kind, it’s important to have a grip on the scope of copyright protection so that you can make sure your work is covered. (This is our soft way of saying ‘get a grip’.) And truth be told, if you’re a human of any kind, it’s also important to make sure you have a grip on all things copyright so that you can make sure you aren’t violating someone else’s.

Many of us—humans and artists alike—have a pretty general idea of what copyrights protect, but if we had to put that protection into concrete terms things might get a little fuzzy.

“Doesn’t it protect, like, art and stuff?”

Sure, the protection of “art” is a pretty great start for explaining what copyright covers, there are a lot of other nuances to copyright protection. For example, does copyright protect all forms of art? When does that protection begin? What about stuff that isn’t art? Does copyright protect the title of the art, or just the art itself? Are we going to say the word ‘protect’ 10 more times or 20? If you’re now feeling a little less certain about your copyright knowledge, fear not, we’ll clear some of this stuff up for you in a few snappy, bulleted lists.

In statutory language, copyright protects: “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Let’s break that into elements and explain them in plain, non-snoozeworthy English.

1. Original works of authorship
There are two bits to this originality element. The first requires a showing that the work comes from the author claiming ownership—in other words that the work merely hasn’t been copied. In this context, the work is “original” because it’s the creation of this particular author. The second aspect of originality requires that the work itself contains some level of creativity. For example, the work isn’t merely a compilation of facts with nothing more. In this context, the work is “original” because it’s comprised of some elements that were the subject of creative thought and effort.

2. Fixed in a tangible medium of expression
The work must be tangible. So, essentially, you must be able to hear, read or touch it and it must be pretty well fixed in that tangible medium—meaning that, it won’t instantaneously disappear like dark magic. This includes obvious things like sculptures, poems and music (as in written music and sound recordings of that music). It doesn’t include: choreographic performances not captured on video (or notated) or an improvised poem or speech, if not recorded. It also wouldn’t include a theatrical performance not captured on video, although the script itself would still be protected.

The reason for this element is quite logical: In order for copyright protection to exist for a work, there must be proof that the work exists. If there is nothing in the work that is tangible, it’s impossible to protect it because its contents can’t be verified.

Obviously, copyright doesn’t protect any work that doesn’t meet the above elements. However, here’s a list of things that copyright categorically doesn’t protect, even if it does arguably satisfy the above elements.

  • Names of products/services, names of business/organizations (That’s what Trademarks are for, slick.)
  • Titles of works (like plays, books, movies, etc)
  • Slogans, catch phrases, mottoes, etc.
  • Recipes or formulas that are merely lists of ingredients. (These fail to meet the originality requirement.)

And now, these are the categories of copyrightable work. Assuming the work satisfies the elements of copyright protection, it would be put into one of these categories by the U.S. Copyright Office.

  1. literary works
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. sound recordings
  8. architectural works

Don’t you feel smarter already? You look smarter. For more tasty goodness about copyright law, check out this post.

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