What Intellectual Property Is Not Protected by Copyright?

Posted on 07/26/2010
In Intellectual Property



registered symbolHave you written or created something amazing? You want to get it out there, but you also want to be sure that no one steals your idea.

You need to protect your intellectual property — but did you know that some works are not protected by copyright?

It’s important to get an idea of what is and is not protected by copyright before you unleash your big ideas on the world. Find out what copyright laws allow you to protect.

What Does Copyright Law Protect?

Copyright protection, provided by the US Copyright Office, can be provided to the authors of creative property like artistic, literary, musical, dramatic or other intellectual work.

A copyright allows an author to protect his or her original work that is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means that ideas are not protected by copyright — but if you put that idea on paper, it may be able to be copyrighted.

What Is Not Protected by Copyright?

Copyright law was introduced in the US Constitution, but as with many laws, it is open to interpretation and debate.

Just because something is written down does not mean it is copyrightable. There are several instances where tangible expressions of a thought are deemed not to be protected by copyright. Here are just a few examples:

1) Well-Known Information & Methods

Things that are commonly known, or that have been around for awhile and have no known creator, are not protected by copyright.

This includes:

  • Systems of measurement
  • Tools used to measure, such as rulers or calendars
  • Mathematical principles and formulas
  • Scientific discoveries
  • Business procedures
  • Phone books/directories

2) Performances

Performances can be copyrighted — but only if they are original and taped, notated or transcribed. This means speeches, choreographed dance routines, plays and other performances are not protected by copyright until they are recorded or put on paper.

3) Articles of Clothing

While copyright protection is offered to visual art and architecture, fashion is not protected by copyright.

However, there are some aspects of clothing and design that fall under copyright law. Think of the iconic Burberry plaid patterns. There’s a reason why you associate them with Burberry — pattern designs are able to be protected by copyright. And while new clothing or accessory designs are not protected by copyright, they may be able to be patented.

4) Words & Phrases

While words are considered part of the public domain and are not protected by copyright, names, symbols, logos, devices and slogans can obtain trademark protection. A trademark indicates where a product came from and exists to distinguish it from other similar products.

Phrases are a gray area under copyright law. Generally phrases can be trademarked, but if the creator can prove sufficient originality, a phrase may be able to be copyrighted.

International Copyright Protection

Unfortunately, “international copyright protection” doesn’t really exist in that there is no way for a creator to copyright his intellectual property throughout the world at one time.

However, most countries do offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions, and these conditions have been simplified in recent years by international copyright treaties and conventions.

You can request a copy of Circular 38a, “International Copyright Relations of the United States,” from the US Copyright Office to find out where your work may not be protected by copyright law.


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