What Is Not Protected by Copyright Law?

Although most creative works easily satisfy the requirements for copyright law protection, it’s important to understand what copyright law does not protect, such as ideas and concepts.

No. Ideas, facts, and concepts are not protected by copyright law. Although they are not protectable by copyright, the expression of those ideas, facts, and concepts are protectable, such as in a description, explanation, or illustration or as a database of facts. Separating an idea from the expression or manifestation of that idea is known in copyright law as the idea-expression dichotomy.

For example, anyone may “use” the ideas and facts in a news article to write their own article that uses their own expression, but, with some exceptions, no one is allowed take the exact expression used by the author of the article to describe or explain those ideas, facts, and procedures. Copyright does not protect the ideas or the facts in the news article, but does protect the author’s expression of those ideas and facts.

Because ideas cannot be copyrighted, anyone can build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by someone else, which encourages the creation and dissemination of copyrighted works and promotes the progress of the arts.

There are times when the idea and the expression of the idea are so intertwined with one another that there is only one way or very few ways to express the idea. This is what is commonly referred to as the merger doctrine. When the idea and expression of the idea merge like this, the expression of the idea is not copyrightable. For example, there may be very limited ways to explain a certain method for a bookkeeping or recordkeeping system or express the process of creating chicken soup in a recipe. For more information on copyrightability of recipes and cookbooks, read our blog post on the topic.

What Else Is Not Protected by Copyright Law?

In addition to ideas, facts, and concepts, there are also several other things that are not eligible for copyright protection. Below you’ll find a non-exhaustive list of what copyright law generally does not protect:

  • Procedures, processes and methods of operation;
  • Systems;
  • Principles and discoveries;
  • Titles, slogans, and other short phrases;
  • Lists of ingredients;
  • Creations that are not fixed in a tangible form, like an improvisational comedy sketch;
  • Information that is comprised completely of common property and no original authorship, like standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers;
  • Utilitarian elements of industrial designs (although the expressive elements of the design may be protected, such as a decorative lamp base);
  • Familiar symbols or designs, like a “Stop” sign;
  • Simple geometrical shapes; and
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring

Though copyright law does not protect these elements, they could be protectable under other kinds of intellectual property (IP) laws including patent, trademark, or trade secret law. For example, a slogan may be eligible for trademark protection and a process may be patentable subject matter. Visit our FAQ section of our website to learn more about the differences between copyright law and other IP laws.