Do you know how copyright protects an expression?

Copyright is a crucial form of intellectual property protection that safeguards the rights of creators and authors.

This means that when a creator uniquely expresses an idea, by writing it in a book, portraying it in a painting, composing it in a song, or encoding it in software, that specific expression is protected.

This protection grants creators exclusive rights to use, distribute, display, and adapt their work, as well as the potential to derive economic benefit from it.

Understanding the scope and limitations of protection is fundamental for both creators and users of copyrighted materials.

Copyright Protects an Expression of an Idea

Yes, copyright protects an expression of an idea, not the idea itself.

This means that when you take an idea and express it in a tangible form – for instance, by writing a novel, creating a piece of art, composing a song, or developing software – that specific copyright protects an expression.

For example, consider the idea of a “love story between two people from feuding families”. This is a general idea and cannot be copyrighted.

However, when William Shakespeare expressed this idea in the specific form of the play “Romeo and Juliet”, that particular expression is protected.

Therefore, another author is free to write their own love story between two people from feuding families, but they cannot copy the specific expressions that make up “Romeo and Juliet” – the dialogue, the specific plot developments, and so on.

Remember, the protection offered by copyright is limited to the specific form in which ideas are expressed.

It doesn’t extend to the underlying ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries.

What Form of Expression is Subject to Copyright?

Copyright protects an expression and original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form.

This means that the work must exist in a physical medium where it can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.

The following forms of expression can be subject to copyright:

Literary Works: This category includes books, articles, novels, poems, letters, reports, blogs, and computer programs.

Musical Works: This covers compositions, songs, and the accompanying words.

Dramatic Works: This includes plays, screenplays, scripts, and accompanying music.

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Pantomimes and Choreographic Works: These are dance compositions and movements, which have been notated or recorded.

Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works: This includes paintings, drawings, photographs, diagrams, maps, sculptures, and architectural works.

Motion Pictures and Other Audiovisual Works: This includes movies, documentaries, television shows, video games, and videos.

Sound Recordings: These are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.

Architectural Works: These include the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.

Can You Copyright an Idea?

No, you cannot copyright an idea.

This means that when you take an idea and express it in a unique way – by writing it down, creating a piece of art, composing a song, developing software, or recording a film – copyright protects an expression.

For example, you cannot copyright the idea for a novel about a wizard school.

But when J.K. Rowling took that idea and expressed it in the form of the Harry Potter books, those specific books – with their unique characters, plot lines, and settings – are protected by copyright.

Someone else is free to write their own story about a wizard school, but they cannot substantially copy the specific expressions that make up the Harry Potter books.

If you want to protect an idea itself, that typically falls under the realm of patents (for inventions) or trade secrets (for business processes or methods), not copyright.

It’s always advisable to consult with a legal professional for accurate advice specific to your situation.

Copyright Protects an Expression in India

In India,  protection is governed by the Indian Copyright Act, 1957. The Act protects original works of authorship that are expressed in a tangible form.

Here’s a look at how this protection works:

What is Protected

Copyright in India protects original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, as well as cinematographic films and sound recordings.

How Protection is Granted

Similar to most other jurisdictions, protection in India is automatic and begins as soon as the work is created and expressed in a tangible form.

There’s no need to publish the work or register it to gain  protection.

However, registering the copyright can provide certain legal advantages, such as serving as prima facie evidence in a court of law in case of disputes.

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Duration of Protection

For literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (other than photographs), the term of copyright protection is the lifetime of the author plus sixty years after the author’s death.

In the case of photographs, cinematographic films, sound recordings, posthumous publications, anonymous and pseudonymous publications, works of government.

And works of international organisations, protection lasts for sixty years from the beginning of the calendar year following the year in which the work was first published.

Infringement and Remedies

Remedies can include injunctions, damages or account of profits, seizure of infringing copies, and in some cases, even imprisonment of the infringer.

Fair Use

Just like other jurisdictions, Indian  law also recognises the doctrine of fair use.

Which allows limited use of copyrighted work without the permission of the owner under certain conditions, for purposes such as research, criticism, comment, teaching, and news reporting.

What is Idea Expression Dichotomy

The Idea-Expression Dichotomy is a fundamental concept in law that aims to balance the need to incentivise creativity and the free flow of ideas.

It distinguishes between ideas and the expression of those ideas, stating that  protection extends only to the specific expression of an idea and not to the idea itself.

In essence, this means that while a particular expression (like a novel, painting, or song) is copyrightable, the underlying ideas, concepts, facts, systems, or methods of operation are not.

For example, an author can’t copyright the idea of a “zombie apocalypse,” but they can copyright their specific novel about a zombie apocalypse.

This allows others to create their own unique expressions based on the same or similar ideas without infringing on copyright.

This dichotomy is important because it ensures that while creators can protect and benefit from their work, ideas remain in the public domain to inspire and facilitate further creativity and innovation.

However, the line between idea and expression can sometimes be unclear and can lead to complex legal questions, often requiring case-by-case analysis by courts.


In conclusion, copyright protection plays an essential role in fostering creativity and innovation by protecting the specific expression of an idea.

The foundation of this protection lies in the Idea-Expression Dichotomy, which distinguishes the uncopyrightable ideas from their copyrightable expressions.

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However, the boundaries can sometimes blur, creating complex legal challenges.

As such, it’s crucial for creators, users, and legal professionals to understand this concept thoroughly and navigate it wisely to balance the dual goals of encouraging creativity and maintaining the free flow of ideas.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does ‘copyright protects an expression’ mean?

This phrase means that copyright law provides protection for the specific way an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

For example, the idea of a love story is not protectable, but a unique novel or screenplay about a love story is.

This protection gives creators the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and adapt their work for a specified period.

What forms of expression are protected by copyright?

Copyright law protects various forms of expression as long as they are original and fixed in a tangible medium.

Can you copyright an idea?

It only protects the tangible expression of these ideas.

For instance, you cannot copyright the idea for a game, but the written code for a video game can be copyrighted.

What is the Idea-Expression Dichotomy?

The Idea-Expression Dichotomy is a principle in copyright law that separates ideas from the expression of those ideas.

While ideas themselves are not protected by copyright law and are free for everyone to use, the specific expression of those ideas is protectable.

How does copyright law protect the expression of an idea?

If someone uses the copyrighted work without permission in a way that violates these rights, it is considered copyright infringement, and the copyright owner can take legal action against the infringer.