What does a copyright protect? Ideas may not be copyrighted, even if original. However, the expression of original ideas may be copyrighted. There are a number of consequences for infringing on another person’s copyright.

Reason for Copyrights

The purpose of copyrights is to incentivize individuals to create new works or new expressions of ideas. A copyright does this by granting the creator the exclusive right to that original expression.

The creator does not have to worry about another person stealing his or her creator because copyright laws give the creator the exclusive right to copy his or her expression or reproduce it in any fashion. Sometimes the expression of ideas may be through plays or other acting. A creator of the expression of an original idea may not be acted out by another either.

Derivative expressions of ideas are expressions of ideas that are created based on the original. The creator of an original expression of ideas also has the exclusive right to create derivative expressions of ideas.

Protection in Part of a Work

Sometimes an expression of ideas will contain parts protected by copyright laws and also parts not protected by copyright laws. The law will permit a creator to obtain a copyright in only certain parts of an expression of ideas if only part is permitted by copyright laws. The law will not prevent a creator from having a copyright on a portion of an expression simply because the complete expression contains parts that are not protected by copyright.

Unprotected and Protected Works

Expressions that are not protected by copyright laws include expressions that have become public domain, are not original, common processes, or actual historical events, to name a few.

The expression of the idea is protected matter. For example, an author might write about a couple meeting, falling in love, and facing disapproval from others based on the couple having different religious beliefs. This author’s creative expression of the storyline and characters is protected matter. However, this author does not have an exclusive right to the idea, concept, or principle of this storyline.

The more detailed portions of a fictional work are more likely to be protected matter than the more general portions. A recount of factual events will receive less copyright protection than fictional stories. The means of expression of facts and events, for example in a non-fiction book, are protected by copyright. However, another author is permitted to recount, in another way, the same facts and events.

Merging Protected and Unprotected Matter

However, when protected matter and unprotected matter both exist in a work, there is a possibility that the merger doctrine will apply. The merger doctrine allows an author to copy protected matter to the extent necessary if there is only one, or a few, ways of describing or depicting the unprotected matter. Otherwise, it would be difficult or impossible to express the unprotected matter.

For example, a golden retriever is golden, furry, has four legs, two eyes, a long snout with nose and mouth, ears that are positioned in a certain way, and a tail with a certain amount of curl. It would be nearly impossible to depict a golden retriever without these characteristics. Therefore, similarities among depictions of golden retriever drawings or statues, under the merger doctrine, cannot be the basis for finding infringement on the copyright. The expressive protected matter merges with the unprotected matter. Otherwise, copyright law would prohibit any drawings or statues of golden retrievers.