Common Questions: Can I Copyright My Idea?

In a word, no.  Ideas are not copyrightable.  Instead, the way that such ideas are expressed can be subject to copyright protection, to registration in the Copyright Office, and to enforcement against infringers.

The Copyright Act provides that copyright protection exists “in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” 17 U.S.C. § 102.

Qualifying Works

Now, what is an “original work of authorship” for practical purposes? There are several specifically defined options for this definition – including literary works, motion pictures, works of visual arts, sound recordings, and architectural works. For purely practical purposes, these means that books, screenplays, scripts, musical lyrics and arrangements, recordings of musical or dramatic performances, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and the like can be “works of authorship.”

If you have questions about a specific type of work, check out the Copyright Office’s Fact Sheets and Circulars – these provide quick answers to questions that are commonly asked. For instance, there’s a Circular for Ideas, Methods and Systems (Cir. 31) and for Names, Titles or Short Phrases (Cir. 34). The first are more properly addressed in the context of patent law, while the second are more properly considered in trademark law. Also see the Copyright Office’s FAQs – they cover a number of common questions, including “Can I copyright the name of my band?”

Fixed in a Tangible Medium of Expression

Another key hurdle in determining whether you have a copyrightable work is to ensure that it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” While an original dance performance qualifies as “an original work of authorship,” if it’s not recorded in some tangible medium (DVD, CD, videotape, 16mm film, etc.) it can’t be protected under the Copyright Act. (Theoretically, perhaps it also can’t be copied exactly.) The Copyright Act explains that a work is “fixed” for these purposes “when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.” 17 U.S.C. § 101.

Copyright exists at the moment of creation – unlike patents, registration of the right is not required in order to have the right exist. However, the Act requires that copyrights must be registered before the owner has standing to file suit against an infringer. 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) (“. . . no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title”). Some courts have interpreted this requirement to permit suit after the application has been filed, while others require that the owner wait until a Certificate of Registration has been issued by the Copyright Office before filing suit. (The Copyright Office provides some additional reasons why you should register your copyrights with the Office.)

Other Considerations

Even if you overcome these two hurdles (“original work of authorship” and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression”), there are other requirements for obtaining and maintaining registration that are not covered in this brief note. If you have specific questions, you can find some answers on the Copyright Office’s site, but if not, you should consult with a practitioner in this area to review and discuss your circumstances.