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Copyright Protection of Ideas, Systems and Procedures

Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.  However, copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.  If a copyrightable expression and non-copyrightable idea are inseparably linked, copyright protection for the expression is generally unavailable.

The policies behind denying copyright protection for ideas, systems and procedures are that:

  1. These limits help make sure that copyright does not burden creativity.  If one could copyright the very idea of a story, then many other creative works would be stifled.
  2. These limits help ensure that copyright promotes and rewards creativity.  Originality is required by the Constitution for copyright protection.  Original in this sense only requires that the work be independently created with some creative effort; it is does not require that the work be novel or innovative.  It is for this reason that facts and other discoveries are not copyrightable.
  3. Finally, these limits keep copyright from extending into other areas of intellectual property law.  Procedures, processes, systems, and methods of operation are functional, useful inventions within the scope of patent law, and are therefore not copyrightable.

A few common examples of non copyrightable subject matter include:

  • Blank forms are not copyrightable because they are functional in nature.
  • Copying a set of contest rules was deemed non-infringing because there were only a limited number of ways to express the rules.  Thus, the non-copyrightable idea of the rules had merged with the expression.
  • Recipes and other mere listing of ingredients are functional and not copyrightable.
  • Typefaces and mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring are generally not copyrightable.
  • Stock characters or generic settings and themes are also generally un-protectable under copyright law.

Inside Copyright Protection of Ideas, Systems and Procedures