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Copyrightability Standards

15 January, 2016 - 09:34

To be subject to copyright, the writing must be “fixed” in some “tangible medium of expression.” A novelist who composes a chapter of her next book in her mind and tells it to a friend before putting it on paper could not stop the friend from rushing home, writing it down, and selling it (at least the federal copyright law would offer no protection; some states might independently offer a legal remedy, however).

The work also must be creative, at least to a minimal degree. Words and phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans, are not copyrightable; nor are symbols or designs familiar to the public. But an author who contributes her own creativity—like taking a photograph of nature—may copyright the resulting work, even if the basic elements of the composition were not of her making.

Finally, the work must be “original,” which means simply that it must have originated with the author. The law does not require that it be novel or unique. This requirement was summarized pithily by Judge Learned Hand: “If by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an author, and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats’s.” 1 Sometimes the claim is made that a composer, for example, just happened to compose a tune identical or strikingly similar to a copyrighted song; rather than assume the unlikely coincidence that Judge Hand hypothesized, the courts will look for evidence that the alleged copier had access to the copyrighted song. If he did—for example, the song was frequently played on the air—he cannot defend the copying with the claim that it was unconscious, because the work would not then have been original.

Section 102 of the Copyright Act excludes copyright protection for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied.” 2

Einstein copyrighted books and monographs he wrote on the theory of relativity, but he could not copyright the famous formula E = mc2, nor could he prevent others from writing about the theory. But he could protect the particular way in which his ideas were expressed. In general, facts widely known by the public are not copyrightable, and mathematical calculations are not copyrightable. Compilations of facts may be copyrightable, if the way that they are coordinated or arranged results in a work that shows some originality. For example, compiled information about yachts listed for sale may qualify for copyright protection. 3

One of the most troublesome recent questions concerning expression versus ideas is whether a computer program may be copyrighted. After some years of uncertainty, the courts have accepted the copyrightability of computer programs. 4Now the courts are wrestling with the more difficult question of the scope of protection: what constitutes an “idea” and what constitutes its mere “expression” in a program.

How far the copyright law will protect particular software products is a hotly debated topic, sparked by a federal district court’s ruling in 1990 that the “look and feel” of Lotus 1-2-3’s menu system is copyrightable and was in fact infringed by Paperback Software’s VP-Planner, a competing spreadsheet. 5 The case has led some analysts to “fear that legal code, rather than software code, is emerging as the factor that will determine which companies and products will dominate the 1990s.” 6