Six Things Generally NOT Protected by Copyright
This post is guest authored by Bronte Story, a rising third-year law student at SMU Dedman School of Law. Bronte is one of our summer legal interns here at Maddrey PLLC, and we are happy to present this article. As always, I have reviewed this post for its legal and factual conclusions – Thomas Maddrey
“Copyright law does not protect ideas, methods, or systems. Copyright protection is therefore not available for ideas or procedures for doing, making or building things; scientific or technical methods or discoveries; business operations or procedures; mathematical principles; formulas or algorithms, or any other concept, process, or method of operation.” – United States Copyright Office, 2012
Copyright protects original works of authorship such as literary works, musical works, paintings, photographs and more. Most importantly, copyright exists the moment the work is created. However, there are some things that copyright does not protect. Six of the things copyright does not protect are displayed and explained below.
1. Ideas, Themes, and Concepts
Copyright protects expression, but not the underlying facts and ideas that the expression comes from. For example, if someone publishes an article or short story the piece itself is copyrightable but the facts provided within that writing are not. This means that anyone else is allowed to publish stories with those same facts or concepts, but they are not allowed to reprint an exact copy of another person’s story about those facts. Further, works that are copyrightable must be in a tangible medium of expression. This means that before someone writes a script, creates a sculpture, or records a song, the mere idea of these expressions is not protected, only the work in tangible form is protected by copyright law.
Copyright protection does not extend to procedures, processes, or methods of operation. This usually in the context of scientific or mathematical discoveries. These types of things should be shared and used widely and not be contained to the exclusive use of the person who came up with such process. For example, a person who comes up with a revolutionary process for performing brain surgery would not be able to copyright that procedure.
3.Industrial Designs and Inventions
Inventions are not protected by copyright either. Inventions are generally the subject matter of patents that should be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This is primarily because copyright does not protect anything but original works of authorship. An invention or industrial design, such as a standard light bulb, is not that of original expression that would be protected by copyright. These are exclusively for the USPTO that fit not within an “original expression” definition but are more applicable to developments covered by patents.
Words, letters, and phrases alone are not copyrightable. However, the combination of them is what may allow a work to become an “expression by the author.” For example, books, plays, and movie scripts are all copyrightable, while titles, phrases, and individual words are not. If titles, words, and phrases were protected by copyright, then we would run out of ways to name original works of authorship. Think of how inefficient it would be if someone copyrighted the word “paper.” Taking away the rights of everyone else in the country to use that word would be a completely ineffective and insufficient use of copyright protection under U.S. Copyright law, not to mention inconvenient.
5. Anything in the Public Domain such as Historical Events, Facts, or Works with Expired Copyrights
Facts, historical events, and works with expired copyrights are not protected by copyright law. Think about polling data, information about natural disasters, and even something as mundane as which celebrity most recently separated from their partner. All of this information is factual, but many news organizations will write stories about these facts. The written story about any given fact is protected, but the facts behind it are not. This would give too much exclusivity to any given person writing about any given fact.
Further, historical events such as World War II, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and so on, are not protectable by copyright. Anyone can write a book, a play or produce a movie about these events, but the historical facts behind them are still not protected.
Lastly, copyright protection only lasts so long. The general rule is that anything created after January 1, 1978, has copyright protection that lasts for the duration of the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. Specifics about copyright protections and how long they last can be found here on copyright.gov. Once a copyright expires, that work becomes public domain, meaning it is free to be used by anyone else.
6. Work that is Copied in some way but is Considered Fair Use
One major hindrance on copyright infringement claims is the defense known as fair use. The unauthorized use of anyone else’s copyright is considered unacceptable copyright infringement unless it is ruled to be fair use. Fair use is a “limited exception” to the authors monopoly over use of his or her work. When someone uses someone else’s work in some way and the original author claims it is copyright infringement, a court of law will weigh and consider four fair use factors which are as follows:
(1) purpose and character or the work;
(2) nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) amount & substantiality of the barrowed portion of the original work; and
(4) potential adverse effect of the use on the market value of the original work.
These factors are examined and it is determined if it is “fair use” or not. Look for much more about this in a future blog post!
About the Author
Thomas Maddrey is the founder and managing partner of Maddrey PLLC. Prior to attending law school, Tom was a commercial photographer, entrepreneur, and gallery owner. His work in both the arts and as a business owner has given him a unique perspective on the needs of owners and creatives, as well as an understanding of the obstacles they face.
Learn more about Thomas Maddrey HERE.