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What Cannot be Copyrighted?

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Manish Jindal

December 26, 2023

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What Cannot be Copyrighted?

Do you know what cannot be copyrighted in the content creation?

Certain types of work and content are not eligible for copyright protection under U.S. law and similar legislation worldwide, no matter how original or innovative they might be.

Such items include ideas, concepts, facts, procedures, and more.

This guide explores the realm of what cannot be copyrighted, highlighting the rationale behind these exceptions and providing examples to deepen your understanding of this critical aspect of intellectual property law.

This knowledge will help you navigate the intricate world of copyrights more effectively, fostering creativity and innovation while still respecting others’ rights.

How to Copyright the Content?

To copyright your content in the United States, and most other jurisdictions worldwide, follow these general steps:

Create Original Work

The first and foremost requirement is that the work must be original and creative. This means it should be the result of your own creativity and not copied from others.

Fixation

The work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This could be writing it down, recording it, painting it, etc. As long as it’s perceivable and reproducible, it should suffice.

Automatically Protected

Under U.S. copyright law, as soon as your work is fixed in a tangible form, it’s protected. You don’t necessarily have to register it for copyright protection; it’s automatic.

However, for stronger protection and the ability to sue for copyright infringement, it’s recommended to officially register your copyright.

Prepare the Work: Ensure you have a copy of the work that you want to register. This could be a digital file, a physical manuscript, or another suitable format.

Complete an Application: You will need to complete a copyright registration application.

Pay the Fee: There is usually a fee associated with copyright registration. In the U.S., as of September 2021, the standard fee for online registration is $65 for most works.

Submit the Work: Along with your application, you will need to submit a non-returnable copy or copies of the work that you are copyrighting.

Wait for Processing: Once you’ve submitted your application, it can take several months for the U.S. Copyright Office to process it.

They will send you a certificate of registration once it’s been approved.

What Cannot be Copyrighted?

Understanding what cannot be copyrighted is critical to distinguishing between protected works and those that are freely available for use.

Here are some categories of content that cannot be copyrighted:

Ideas and Facts: While the expression of an idea can be copyrighted, the idea itself cannot be.

Similarly, facts, no matter how difficult they were to discover or compile, cannot be copyrighted.

Common Knowledge: This refers to information widely known or readily ascertainable. It includes historical or biographical facts, scientific or technical facts, and folklore.


Procedures, Methods, and Processes: These cannot be copyrighted, but they may be patentable. For example, a specific method of teaching a language, a specific process for creating a product, or a recipe cannot be copyrighted.

Works by U.S. Government Employees: Any work created by a U.S. government employee as part of their official duties cannot be copyrighted and are in the public domain.

Blank Forms: Forms that collect information (like job applications, tax forms, and invoice sheets) do not qualify for copyright protection.

Systems and Facts: Broad systems or collections of facts that do not in themselves represent original creative work cannot be copyrighted.

Fashion: In most cases, clothing designs cannot be copyrighted because they are considered functional items.

As always, consulting with a legal professional is advisable when dealing with copyright-related matters.

How to Use Copyrighted Content without Violation

Obtain Permission or License:

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The safest way to use copyrighted material is by obtaining express permission from the copyright owner.

This often involves a licensing agreement, which could require the payment of a fee.

Fair Use: In some cases, you can use copyrighted content under the doctrine of “fair use.”

This is a legal doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders.

Use Public Domain Content: Works in the public domain aren’t copyrighted, so you’re free to use them as you wish.

These typically include works for which the copyright has expired, works that are ineligible for copyright, or works released into the public domain by the copyright owner.

Creative Commons: Some creators opt to license their works under a Creative Commons license, which often allows for free use, provided certain conditions (like attribution) are met. Always check the specific terms of the license.

Use Copyright-Free Material: Some content is specifically created to be copyright-free or royalty-free.

Websites like Unsplash for images or FreeSound for audio files provide content that you can use without violating copyright laws, often only requiring attribution.

De Minimis Use: This refers to the use of a tiny bit of copyrighted content that courts deem as too trivial to constitute infringement.

However, it is a legal grey area and what constitutes ‘de minimis’ can vary case by case.

Conclusion

Ideas, facts, names, titles, phrases, and works by U.S. government employees, among others, remain outside the purview of copyright.

Understanding these exceptions to copyright can help facilitate a more balanced exchange of ideas, foster innovation, and maintain access to common knowledge.

Moreover, knowing what cannot be copyrighted allows individuals and businesses to navigate legal landscapes more effectively, ensuring respectful use of copyrighted content and avoiding potential infringement.

However, as copyright laws can be intricate and vary significantly between jurisdictions, professional legal advice should be sought when dealing with matters pertaining to copyright.

Frequently Asked Questions

What cannot be copyrighted?

Copyright does not cover ideas, facts, names, titles, slogans, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices.

Furthermore, works created by U.S. government employees as part of their official duties, as well as items deemed as “common knowledge,” are not subject to copyright

Can I copyright an idea or concept?

No, you cannot copyright an idea or concept. Copyright law protects the expression of an idea or concept, not the idea or concept itself.

For example, you cannot copyright the idea for a book, but you can copyright the actual text of the book you write.

Can facts or data be copyrighted?

Facts and data cannot be copyrighted. They are considered a part of the public domain, which means they are freely accessible for anyone to use.

However, a specific presentation of data, such as a unique chart or report, could potentially be copyrighted.

Are government works copyrighted?

In the United States, works created by U.S. federal government employees as part of their official duties are not subject to copyright and are in the public domain.

However, this does not necessarily apply to state or local government works or to government works in other countries.
 
 

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