Can you copyright an idea?

You can’t copyright an idea … but that doesn’t mean you can’t protect it. Read on …

[excerpt from Copyright Companion for Writers by Tonya M. Evans]

Lightbulb key on keyboard

Ideas and copyright

The Copyright expressly excludes ideas from its protection. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “idea” as “something, such as a thought or conception that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.” Therefore, the idea of writing a book about, for instance, a falsely accused prisoner who escapes from jail to prove his innocence and find the real killer cannot be protected under the Copyright Act.

But the act does protect a written manuscript based on that idea. This conclusion makes sense in light of the way copyright is created. Copyright protection exists the moment an original and creative artistic or literary expression is fixed in a tangible form. Until an idea is fixed in a writing or recording, it is just that – an idea. Once fixed in a tangible form, the expression (assuming, of course, that it is also original and has some modicum of creativity) is protected by copyright.

It is not correct, however, to assume that an idea can never be protected. In fact, the protection of ideas is critical in situations where, for instance, you submit a book proposal to a publisher, pitch a screenplay to a producer or studio, or brainstorm with a collaborator about potential story lines. In such situations, ideas may be protectable under state law related to theories of contract (a nondisclosure agreement, for example), property, or in some cases, misappropriation.

© 2011 Tonya M. Evans. This post may be “shared socially” and republished provided this post is copied in its entirety and copyright and byline information is included for attribution. “This post is republished with permission from www.legalwritepublications.com. Copyright 2011 Tonya M. Evans, Esq. Law professor, author, speaker and intellectual property expert”.

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