5 things you can't copyright

In order to qualify for copyright protection, an original creative work must exist in tangible form—in other words, written down or in a form you can touch.

by Heleigh Bostwick
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

So you've written the next hit song, crafted a slogan to sell millions, and even come up with a recipe that puts Iron Chef to shame—the question is, can you copyright them? Learn the five surprising things that you can't copyright (and what you can).


What does copyright cover?

According to the US Copyright Office, in order for something to qualify for copyright protection, that something must exist in a tangible form. Specifically:

Protection under the copyright law (title 17 of the U.S. Code, section 102) extends only to original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form (a copy).

“Original” means merely that the author produced the work by his own intellectual effort, as distinguished from copying an existing work.

Copyright protection may extend to a description, explanation, or illustration, assuming that the requirements of the copyright law are met.

In other words, that great idea you told your friend about the other day cannot be protected by copyright in and of itself, but if you write that great idea down, the words can be protected.

Still, there's always room for interpretation, confusion, and ongoing debates over what is and isn't protected by copyright law.

So below we've outlined five things the U.S. Copyright Office clearly states are not protected by copyright—even if they are a tangible expression of an idea or thought.

1. Ideas, methods, or systems

Ideas, methods, and systems are not covered by copyright protection.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 2, this covers quite a few things including:

  • Making or building things
  • Scientific or technical methods or discoveries;
  • Business operations or procedures
  • Mathematical principles
  • Formulas, algorithms
  • Any other concept, process, or method of operation

2. Commonly known information

This category includes items that are considered common property and with no known authorship.

This includes phrases such as “The sky is blue,” which have no known authorship associated with them.

Other examples include:

  • Standard calendars
  • Height and weight charts
  • Telephone directories
  • Tape measures and rulers
  • Lists or tables taken from public documents 

3. Choreographic works

A choreographic work, whether original or not, is not subject to copyright protection unless it has been videotaped or notated.

The same applies to speeches that have not been transcribed before or after they are given, as well as any other types of performances.

4. Names, titles, short phrases, or expressions

That catchy slogan you came up with for your business? No dice on a trademark.

The good news is that while not protected by copyright, if it pertains to your business (for example, goods and services), it can be protected with a trademark.

Also exempt:

  • Names
  • Titles
  • Short phrases or expressions
  • Product descriptions
  • Pseudonyms
  • Titles of works
  • Business names 

Recipes also fall under this category. Specifically, the listing of ingredients (even if it's your own recipe ingredients) is not protected by copyright.

This applies to formulas, compounds, and prescriptions as well.

There are exceptions, however, such as when recipes are compiled in a cookbook. Or if the recipe is accompanied by “substantial literary expression," or a specific combination of recipes, there may be a basis for copyright protection.

5. Fashion

Contrary to what you might think, fashion (that is, a shirt, dress, or another article of clothing) is not protected by copyright law.

Despite the fact that copyright law protects such things as architectural design works (Circular 41) or works of the visual arts (Circular 40), fashion is all about clothing and accessories, which under copyright law are considered “useful articles."

It is possible, however, to copyright a specific fabric pattern (Burberry plaids for example), but not the actual dress.

And, it should be noted that while designs can't be copyrighted, they can be patented.

For more information please visit: U.S. Copyright Office, or click here to copyright your creation today.

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Heleigh Bostwick

About the Author

Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick has been writing for LegalZoom since 2006, touching on topics as diverse as estate planning and kids, c… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.