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  • Ric Armstrong

Intellectual Property: What's Not Covered by the Law?


According to the US Copyright Office, in order for something to qualify for copyright protection, that something must exist in a tangible form. Specifically: Protection under the copyright law (title 17 of the U.S. Code, section 102) extends only to original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form.


“Original” means merely that the author produced the work by his own intellectual effort, as distinguished from copying an existing work. Copyright protection may extend to a description, explanation, or illustration, assuming that the requirements of the copyright law are met.


In other words, that great idea you told your friend about the other day cannot be protected by copyright in and of itself, but if you write that great idea down, the words can be protected.


Still, there's always room for interpretation, confusion, and ongoing debates over what is and isn't protected by copyright law.


1. Ideas, Methods, or Systems

Ideas, methods, and systems are not covered by copyright protection. According to the US Copyright Office, Circular 2, this covers quite a few things including:

  • Making, or building things

  • Scientific or technical methods or discoveries;

  • Business operations or procedures

  • Mathematical principles

  • Formulas, algorithms

  • Any other concept, process, or method of operation

2. Commonly Known Information

This category includes items that are considered common property and with no known authorship. This includes phrases such as “The sky is blue,” which have no known authorship associated with them. Other examples include:

  • Standard calendars

  • Height and weight charts

  • Telephone directories

  • Tape measures and rulers

  • Lists or tables taken from public documents

3. Names, Titles, Short Phrases, or Expressions

That catchy slogan you came up with for your business? No dice on a trademark. The good news is that while not protected by copyright, if it pertains to your business (for example, goods and services), it can be protected with a trademark. Also exempt:

  • Names

  • Titles

  • Short phrases or expressions

  • Product descriptions

  • Pseudonyms

  • Titles of works

  • Business names

Recipes also fall under this category. Specifically the listing of ingredients (even if it's your own recipe ingredients) is not protected by copyright. This applies to formulas, compounds, and prescriptions as well.


There are exceptions however, such as when recipes are compiled in a cookbook. Or if the recipe is accompanied by “substantial literary expression," or a specific combination of recipes, there may be a basis for copyright protection.


4. Fashion

Contrary to what you might think, fashion (that is, a shirt, dress, or other article of clothing) is not protected by copyright law. Despite the fact that copyright law protects such things as architectural design works or works of the visual arts, fashion is all about clothing and accessories, which under copyright law are considered “useful articles."


It is possible however, to copyright a specific fabric pattern (Burberry plaids for example), but not the actual dress. And, it should be noted that while designs can't be copyrighted, they can be patented.


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