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What does a copyright protect?

A copyright may protect all works of authorship including the following types of works: literary, musical, dramatic, pantomime, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion pictures, audiovisual, sound recordings, and architectural, among others. 17 U.S.C.’ 102(a). To merit copyright protection, the work must be an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

“Original” only means that the author created the work independently, the author did not copy it from other works, and that the work possesses some minimal degree of creativity. The required level of creativity is extremely low and even a slight amount will suffice for copyright protection. The vast majority of works make the grade easily as they possess some creative spark regardless of how crude.

Original does not mean that the work must be novel. A work may be original though it closely resembles other works so long as the similarity is fortuitous and did not result from copying another work.

The law of copyright specifically excludes any original work of authorship involving an “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” 17 U.S.C. ‘ 102(b).  This distinguishes an author’s expression (which is protectable) and the author’s ideas (which are not).

In certain cases, there are so few ways to express an idea, the idea and expression merge. This is called the “merger doctrine” in which case the expressions subsume the ideas such that the expressions do not receive copyright protection because the protection would have to extend to the idea itself.

Please Note: Rabin Kammerer Johnson provides these FAQ’s for informational purposes only, and you should not interpret this information as legal advice. If you want advice as to how the law might apply to the specific facts and circumstances of your case, please contact one of our attorneys.

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