What Does a Copyright Protect

What Does a Copyright Protect

While verbatim copying of a work is clearly a violation of copyright laws, not all aspects of a work are protected from copying.

Originally, only verbatim copying was considered infringement, but in recent years courts have found paraphrasing and copying of the total concept and feel of a work to be infringement. There is no black and white answer as to what similarities are allowed and what constitutes infringement. Usually, paraphrasing of small portions of a work is allowed, but if substantial portions are paraphrased, there is infringement.

What Is Protected By Copyright Law

Computer software, puppet theater, abstract sculpture and popular music all produce intellectual property protected by copyright law. The disparate kinds of creative works that copyright law protects demonstrate its flexibility and complexity. One way to understand the differences between a copyright on computer code and a copyright on popular music is through the concept of expressiveness.

You cannot copyright the phonebook. It is a collection of facts arranged in alphabetical order. Neither the facts themselves nor their arrangement have sufficient expressiveness to warrant copyright protection. 

You can, however, copyright a short fact-based essay. Your copyright cannot prevent others from using the facts. However, by selecting which facts to present and presenting them in a particular way, you have made the work expressive. To avoid infringing on your copyright, another author will need to select and present the facts differently.

If your work is more creative, then the scope of your copyright is more expansive. For example, lets say you write a romance novel set in the age of pirates. Your copyright extends beyond the text of your novel. You can exclude others from using your characters, the specific plot, and other creative elements. Though you cannot assert your copyright to prevent other pirate novels from being published, the copyright for your genre-defining fantasy novel might be quite broad. In addition to your novel, characters and story, you may be able to exclude others from your new fantasy realm: its creatures, kingdoms, history, and technologies.

It is easy to understand that if you copy any work verbatim then you will violate the original author’s copyright. It is more difficult to understand how different a work needs to be to avoid infringement. Generally, the more expressive the original work the broader the scope of its copyright.

 What is Not Protected By Copyright Law

Until a work has been written down on paper or fixed into some other tangible form that can be seen and/or held, it is not copyrightable. Some examples of works not yet fixed in tangible form are stories that have not been written down, dances that have not been notated or recorded, or speeches or lectures that have not been written down or recorded.

Titles, Names, Mottos, or Slogans

Book titles, company names, group names, pen names, pseudonyms, product names, phrases, mottos, slogans, catchwords, advertising expressions, bumper stickers, and the like may not be copyrighted. If they are part of a creative design or logo, the design or logo can be copyrighted, but you cannot stop someone from using the basic words in another way.

Note: Some of these may be registered as trademarks.

Ideas, Methods, Procedures, and Systems

Copyright only protects the form of expression of an idea—not the idea itself. If you come up with a great way to make a million dollars, a process for tripling corn yield, or a system for eliminating paying income tax, you can write and copyright a book and no one can copy the words in your book. However, others can use your ideas or write their own books about your ideas.

In some cases, a method or procedure can be patented. In many cases, an idea, method, procedure, or system can be protected by keeping it a trade secret.

Plots and Themes

The basic plot of a story cannot be protected, only the words in which the story is told. One famous theme is the love story of Romeo and Juliet, which has been retold in many other ways. Each version of the story can be copyrighted, but you cannot keep someone from using the theme in another story.

Historical Events

Historical facts cannot be copyrighted. If you write a story about your experiences in World War II, you cannot stop others from writing about the same incidents, as long as they do not copy your exact words.

Common Information

No one may copyright works consisting of information that is common property and containing no original authorship. This includes works such as calendars, height and weight charts, rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources. If you design a creative form of a calendar or ruler, you can copyright your design but not the information.


A collection of facts is not copyrightable. For many years, the courts held that collections of facts that took time and labor to collect, such as lists of certain persons' names and addresses, were entitled to copyright protection. This was known as the sweat of the brow doctrine. But in 1991, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that collections of mere facts cannot be copyrighted.

Businesses that sell information should consider protections other than copyright. One type of protection is the licensing of the use of the information. By making each user of the information agree not to disclose it to others, one could hold that user liable for such disclosure.

Lists of Ingredients 

The text of a recipe may be copyrighted, but not a mere list of ingredients. This means that someone else may copy your recipe as long as they rewrite the instructions in their own words.

Blank Forms and Record Books

Generally, any form that is relatively blank such as a check, diary, or address book may not be copyrighted. Where there is some creativity in a form, it may be possible for it to carry copyright protection. 

Government Publications 

Works of the United States Government may not be copyrighted, and anyone may copy them freely. Copyrighted works may contain works of the government, but the copyright only applies to the other material in the book. 

Laws and Court Opinions

Citizens are considered the authors of the law and are therefore its owners regardless of who drafts the words. This allows all citizens free access to the laws that govern them. Therefore, all statutes and court opinions are in the public domain.


The design of a typeface has never been entitled to protection in the United States. Courts have ruled that while typeface is not entitled to protection, the computer code that tells a printer or display how a letter or character is supposed to be shown can be protected. 

Utilitarian Objects

Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of a work. If an object is designed merely to work in a certain way, such as a pair of scissors, its design cannot be copyrighted. This is because such works should be covered by patents. What can be copyrighted is any decoration on the object that does not add to the function but is merely ornamental.