Can ideas be protected by copyright?

Ideas cannot be protected by copyright, although the form in which they are expressed can be. It is not always easy, however, to distinguish between an idea and the expression of an idea and the reproduction of a detailed pattern of incidents or ideas could constitute copyright infringement.

What amounts to copyright infringement?

Where work has been copied without the permission of the copyright owner and such copying is “substantial” the copyright is said to have been infringed. There is no clear definition as to what amounts to “substantial” and the Courts decide cases on a case by case basis.

Decisions of the Courts

The Courts have over the years considered a number of cases relating to ideas and the expression of ideas and have made the following decisions:

  • that there is no copyright in news but only in the manner in which it is expressed;

  • that there is no copyright in an advertising slogan made by stringing together four sentences that are commonplace;

  • that there is no copyright in a mere plot;

  • where a person copied the theme, language, characters, incidents and interpretation of the significance of events from an earlier book it was held that there had been copyright infringement;

  • that it is an infringement of copyright to make an adaption of a literary, dramatic or musical work even if the language is not copied;

  • that there is no copyright in an object which has been previously photographed;

  • that similarities of style and technique do not amount to copyright infringement;

  • that there is no copyright in the format of the television show “Opportunity Knocks”;

  • that there is no copyright in an idea for a picture postcard;

  • that there is no copyright in an opinion as to the likely winner of a horse race;

  • that there is no copyright in an idea for a voting card;

  • that there is no copyright in a system of indexing.

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