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Does Copyright Protect Ideas?

April 21, 2009

I attended a talk recently which was advocating book writing as a way to promote ones personal brand.  Then the speaker said:  “Some people are reluctant to write about their area of expertise because they fear they might be giving away too much information.  However, they have no need to fear this because they have copyright….”

I thought if someone who has spent a lifetime working in publishing can make this basic mistake about copyright ( a mistake I notice others commonly making – even paralegals who come out of law college with distinctions in their final solicitors exams) then it’s worth my writing a short blog post about it.

The notion that by writing down your idea for a product or a business or a way of doing something you can stop others copying the idea is very widespread. But you do not get any protection at all over the end product – that is the idea – when you write it all down on paper.

We see this mistaken notion in action all too often.  Sometimes, people want to know how to protect their idea for a book, or a TV format before they discuss it with a publisher or broadcaster.  Other times, they wonder whether they can stop others drawing inspiration from their idea for something like a piece of software or a building. Often people want to deposit evidence of their patent idea with us thinking that if they write it all down and officially file it with us they will have the equivalent of a patent monopoly over the product.

This view that copyright protects ideas underlies a lot of the confusion that exists about how copyright law works. Another common mistake is to assume that if you contribute ideas to someone who produces a work, you have some rights over the resulting work.  That is not so.  You only get rights if your contribution is concrete and in tangible form.

So, copyright in your written work does not protect the idea as such – it merely protects the way in which the idea is expressed (your choice of words).

The principal way to get protection for your ideas is to use a confidentiality agreement or letter.  However, people should not get a false sense of security from the use of confidentiality undertakings.  The best protection is to be careful who you show confidential information to in the first place.

To recap:  copyright comes into being when an idea is fixed in a tangible way.  So if you have written out your idea, you will have copyright in that piece of writing.  However, this does not give you rights over the information the writing conveys.