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 Does Copyright Protect Ideas?

Does Copyright Protect Ideas?

December 15, 2011

Of all the IP laws, copyright is the most wide-ranging in scope and application. However, there is confusion as to whether copyright protects underlying ideas. Does it protect ideas incorporated in a piece of writing, or a film or CD?

Many people assume copyright does prevent the copying of ideas. However, copyright in written materials only prevents others from copying your text word for word. It does not stop them using the ideas embodied in your text and communicating them  in their own words.

For example, copyright law cannot be used as a tool to stop your competitors setting up a similar line of business. So writing down your business ideas will not stop others using those ideas. Only a patent can give you a monopoly over ideas (assuming those ideas take the form of a product that is capable of being patented).

It’s important to note that while copyright does not prevent others using ideas embodied in your materials, there are some forms of copying which though not word for word copying, could nevertheless amount to infringement of other people’s copyright. For example, if you take so much detail from a work that it could be argued that you have copied a substantial part of it.

The Ipkat today reported ‘The soccer side and the flip side: copying biographical works’ a copyright decision (Jodgon and Jarvie v Isaac and Notting Hill Movies (2011)) which helps illustrate this concept of substantial copying well. The question in that decision turned on whether a film script of the book Flipper’s Side was an adaptation of it.

Only the copyright owner has the right to create an adaptation of a work. It is worth reading the details of the case on Ipkat In deciding this question Judge Birss said

When the book and the DADM script are each considered as a whole, the DADM script is in fact very closely related to the book in terms of its plot, characters and the striking incidents and events which take place. The text is almost entirely different but nine episodes in the DADM script revolve around striking events present in Flipper’s Side and five more include notable events from Flipper’s Side as important parts of the episode. In as much as it is possible or meaningful to quantify such things, in my judgment roughly half of the dramatic incidents in the DADM script derive from Flipper’s Side.’

So having read both texts, the judge decided the script amounted to a substantial copy of the book because the main characters, many of the settings and contexts in which the events took place and good number of the incidents themselves were featured in the script.

In conclusion, if you consider that someone has copied your work it’s worth noting that even though there may not be word for word copying, if a lot of detail has been copied  you may want to take legal advice.