Copyright serves as a foundation for protecting original creative works, granting creators exclusive rights to their creations. However, not everything can be shielded by copyright.

There are several categories and concepts that lie beyond its protective umbrella.

In this article, we’ll break down these categories and provide insights into what is not protected by copyright.

What is Not Protected by Copyright?

Ideas and Concepts

While copyright safeguards the expression of ideas, it does not extend to the ideas themselves.

This distinction is essential to foster innovation and prevent a monopoly on concepts.

For instance, if you come up with a novel idea for a suspenseful thriller set in a haunted mansion, the idea itself isn’t protected. But the specific way you write and present the story is subject to copyright.

Facts and Information

Facts, data, and information, regardless of how significant or groundbreaking, are not protected by copyright.

This means that you can’t claim copyright over historical events, scientific discoveries, or statistical data.

However, the specific way in which facts are organised and presented can be protected.

For example:

  • A meticulously curated timeline of historical events can be copyrighted due to its unique arrangement.
  • Consider a cookbook, where ingredients are cleverly structured within recipes, or a genealogy chart, where birth dates are thoughtfully organised.

In such scenarios, the creators infuse their unique creative touch into arranging factual elements, resulting in distinctive compositions.

Related Article: What Types of Works are Protected by Copyright?

Works in the Public Domain

Works that have entered the public domain are not protected by copyright.

This includes works whose copyright has expired or those that were never eligible for protection.

For instance, classic literature or ancient texts are in the public domain, allowing anyone to use, adapt, and distribute them freely.

Works not Fixed in a Tangible Form of Expression

An additional exclusion from copyright protection encompasses works not preserved in a tangible medium of expression.

This principle signifies that creative works that have not been recorded or documented in a tangible or concrete manner do not enjoy copyright protection.

In order for a work to be eligible for copyright, it must be expressed in a tangible form such as a written document, a recorded audio or video, a drawing, or a digital file.

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The absence of this tangible expression means that the work remains outside the scope of copyright protection, emphasising the significance of capturing creative ideas in a perceptible format to qualify for legal safeguards under copyright law.

Choreographic Compositions

Choreographic works, regardless of their originality, lack copyright protection unless they have been captured through video recording or notation.

Similar principles apply to speeches that have not been transcribed prior to or following their delivery, as well as other forms of performances.

Government Works

In many cases, works created by government entities are not protected by copyright. This enables citizens to access and utilise government-produced materials without restrictions.

However, keep in mind that not all government works fall into this category, and it’s essential to verify the specific rules in your jurisdiction.

Government-generated works in the US

Materials originating from the United States Government are not subject to copyright protection, rendering them available for unrestricted use. These government works encompass:

  • Federal judicial decisions
  • Federal statutes
  • Speeches delivered by federal government officials during their official duties
  • Federal government press releases
  • Reports issued by federal government entities (such as census reports)

However, it’s important to acknowledge that copyright protection might apply to works created by other entities and subsequently acquired by the United States Government through assignment, bequest, or similar means.

Even though federal copyright law doesn’t cover work made by state governments, state laws also don’t come under copyright protection.

Functional and Utilitarian Works

Copyright law does not extend to functional and utilitarian elements of industrial designs. This means that everyday objects, such as furniture, clothing, and tools, aren’t protected by copyright.

However, they might be eligible for other forms of intellectual property protection, such as patents or design patents.

Fashion

Garments like shirts, dresses, and other clothing items do not fall within the realm of copyright protection.

While copyright law safeguards architectural designs and visual artworks, fashion, centered around attire and accessories, is categorised as “useful articles” in copyright terminology.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that copyright can apply to distinct fabric patterns, though the actual clothing article itself remains exempt from copyright protection.

Short Phrases and Expressions

Short phrases, slogans, and expressions are generally not eligible for copyright protection.

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For example, the catchphrase of a famous character or a commonly used saying cannot be copyrighted. However, these elements might be eligible for trademark protection if they are associated with a specific brand.

What Falls Outside the Realm of Copyright Protection?

Expanding beyond concepts, ideas, and facts, several other aspects are excluded from copyright protection.

The subsequent list offers a non-exhaustive glimpse into what copyright law generally refrains from safeguarding:

  1. Procedures, Processes, and Methods of Operation: Functional processes and methods, as well as operational procedures, are typically not eligible for copyright protection.
  2. Systems: Copyright law does not cover systems, be they technological, operational, or otherwise.
  3. Principles and Discoveries: Key principles (like Mathematical principles) and discoveries fall beyond copyright’s protective ambit.
  4. Titles, and Slogans
  5. Ingredient Lists
  6. Common Property Information: Information comprised solely of commonly known facts, like standard calendars, measurement charts, or tape measures usually lacks original authorship and legal protection.
  7. Familiar Symbols or Designs: Well-known symbols or designs, such as a “Stop” sign, usually fall beyond the copyright domain.
  8. Simple Geometrical Shapes: Copyright law typically excludes straightforward geometric shapes.
  9. Typographic Ornamentation, Lettering, or Coloring Variations: Mere variations in typography, lettering, or coloring usually do not garner legal protection.

Despite their exclusion from copyright protection, it’s important to note that these elements could potentially find safeguards under other forms of intellectual property (IP) laws, such as patent, trade secret, or trademark law.

For instance, slogans might be eligible for trademark protection, and certain processes might be subject to patentable considerations.

Conclusion

Understanding what is not protected by copyright is just as important as knowing what is protected.

It ensures that creativity thrives, ideas flow, and innovation continues to reshape our world.

From concepts and facts to public domain works and functional items, the boundaries of copyright exclusions are diverse and nuanced.

By navigating these boundaries responsibly, we can contribute to a more vibrant and innovative creative landscape.

FAQs

Is an idea ever protected by copyright?

No, copyright only protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. This distinction encourages innovation and prevents monopolies on concepts.

Can I copyright a short phrase for my business?

Generally, short phrases and expressions are not eligible for copyright protection. However, they might be eligible for trademark protection.

What is the difference between public domain and unprotected by copyright?

Works in the public domain are those whose copyright has expired or were never eligible for protection. Works not protected by copyright include ideas, facts, functional items, etc.

Can I use copyrighted content if it’s for educational purposes?

Educational use might fall under fair use, a doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission. However, this can be a complex legal area.