Does Copyright laws protect ideas?

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Copyright laws are now well known in every country for many decades. The need and urge of copyright laws was realised when people started hiding their inventions and resisted themselves from taking part in any exhibitions so that their ideas cannot be copied. The government started making laws for the protection of the inventions as a tribute to the inventors for their creative intellectual output and labour applied. The main objective of the copyright law was to restrain others from copying or stealing ideas of others. The copyright laws have given many moral and economic rights to the author.

But questions aroused regarding ideas/expressions dichotomy by many authors. As according to traditional copyright laws only expressions of the ideas are protected and not the idea behind it and there is a very thin line between expression and an unprotected idea. That thin line is called copyright.

This ideas/expressions dichotomy has led to more confusion. As ideas which are the fruits of the labour of the author are not protected but expression behind the idea is protected. The court not only distinguished between ideas and expressions but also has applied this most criticised doctrine in cases of infringement of rights. It is impossible to draw the line between ideas and expression as if it is an idea then it will be in the public domain and if it is expression behind the idea then it is under the author’s control. Due to this, the court struggles to apply the idea/expression dichotomy in cases of infringements. In this article, we will try to analyse the court’s approach to draw a communal line between ideas and expression case by case.

History and Development

Earlier the court used to distinguish what is more precise and what is abstract. If the expressions are more precise than they are protected under copyright and if it in an abstract form than it is an idea and it is not protected under the law.

Formal Origin- Baker v. Selden[1]

Facts- In this case, Selden has a copyright of his book where he has used specific design for columns and rows. Baker used different designs and patterns in his book but with similar content. 

The complainant alleged that baker has used the accounting system of Selden but it didn’t say anything about the copying of the form of the Selden’s book.

Supreme Court held- That the complainant doesn’t have any exclusive rights over the arts. There is a specific distinction between the book and the forms and patterns in it. As the former can be copyrighted but the latter cannot.

The reason behind the Supreme Court judgement was to prevent a monopoly over the ideas as it will hamper the growth of the nation and the economy.

Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp.[2]

Held- The judgement focuses on the scripts and plays:

“Upon any work, and especially upon a play, a great number of patterns of increasing generality will fit equally well, as more and more of the incident is left out. The last may perhaps be no more than the most general statement of what the play is about, and at times might consist only of its title; but there is a point in this series of abstractions where they are no longer protected, since otherwise, the playwright could prevent the use of his “ideas,” to which, apart from their expression, his property is never extended.”[3]

Daly v. Webster[4]

Where the incidents of infringement are themselves from the common property or grouped from a common story then it cannot be copyrighted.


Any transformation in the old story can be protected but the idea of the old story cannot be protected. Although they will be using old plots but people will still try to read the book as there will be new characters, twists and turns in the new book.

Theories regarding Idea/Expression Dichotomy

Merger Theory

From the above discussion, we can conclude only expressions are protected and not the idea behind it and the court have used idea/expression dichotomy to show the slight difference between the ideas and expressions. But not all the expressions are protected; there are expressions where there will be only one way to express the ideas. This means that expression and the ideas are said to be merged and it cannot be protected under copyright law because the main aim of the idea/expression dichotomy is to prevent the idea from monopolising to a particular person.

In simple terms, the merger theory means where the ideas and expressions are inseparable and so intrinsically connected that it cannot be separated and said to have been merged.

Case Laws

Herbert Rosenthal Jewellery Corporation v. Kalpakian[5]

In this case, the plaintiff sued the defendant by asking them not to make any more jewel-shaped pin.

The court applied the doctrine of merger and held that the shape of the jewel pins is free to copy, as there is only one expression to express the idea. The owner cannot have a monopoly in refraining others from using the shape.

Chancellor Masters of Oxford v. Narendra Publishing House[6]

The question aroused regarding the legality of the copying from the textbooks. The court held that mathematical questions are expressions of the law of nature but there are few other ways to express as language is a limited medium such forms cannot be copyrighted.

Affiliated Hospital Products, Inc. v. Merdel Game Mfg. Co.[7]

In this, it was held that game manuals can be copyrighted but the idea of the rules themselves cannot be copyrighted.

Scenes a Faire

It is a French word which means ‘scene to be made’. It is a concept according to which certain ideas are not completed without using fixed elements. These elements are important for making a particular genre. In simple words, it means idea cannot alone be existed without the fixed elements. So the fixed elements are not copyrightable under the act.

Case Laws

Thomas Walker v. Time Life Films Inc.[8]

In this case, the appellant who was a lieutenant officer in the South Bronx for one year wrote a book named ‘Fort Apache’ of his personal experiences in the South Bronx. In his book, he explained about the crimes that took place in that area. The defendant hired another writer to write the screenplay of the play titled- ‘Fort Apache-The Bronx’ where he portrayed crime scenes of the South Bronx.

Walker filed an infringement case against the defendant. Court held that the elements that are important to portray the crime scene of a police officer involves drunks, robbery, thieves which are fixed elements of the idea that want to portray crime scene. In this way, the defendant is not liable and is not an infringer of copyright. The court has applied the scene-a-fair doctrine in this case.

Also Read  BANKRUPTCY CODE, 2016

Joshua ETS-HOKIN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SKYY SPIRITS, INC[9].

In this case – A business photographer names Joshua sued another photographer claiming that they have done similar commercial work as that of the plaintiff and have violated the copyright laws

The court held – The work of the two photographers is very closed but the photo shoot of the Vodka bottle can be clicked in many ways although they are similar. The court held that in order constitute infringement of copyright, the two photos must be indistinguishable with each other.

Position in India

Copyright laws are governed under the Copyright Act, 1957.  The Act is exhaustive with Section 13 of the Act defining the scope of the existence of copyright by listing those works in which copyright subsists.[10] Section 14(a) defines the meaning of copyright in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works and describes the exclusive rights given to the author of the work. Assignments of, and licenses to, copyrighted works, have been explained in detail in the Act.[11] But the act neither says anything about the doctrines, not the idea/expression dichotomy.

The court in many cases talked about the idea/expression dichotomy:

R.G.Anand v. Deluxe Films[12]

In this case, there was an alleged infringement of copyright laws a script of a play that was later made into a cinematographic film. The main theme of the play pictures provincialism which involved different provinces. The theme of the film was also provincialism and it involved that province but it had broader scope as it covered dowry also. The Court while comparing both the film and the play held that the idea i.e. that is provincialism is the same and cannot be protected and there are dissimilarities in the work. Hence the defendant is not liable.

Mattel, Inc. & Ors. v. Mr Jayant Agarwalla & Ors-[13]

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant has infringed both the copyright laws and trademark of the game SCRABBLE of the plaintiff. The game was an online game that was available on Facebook also.

But the court has earlier also said that doctrine of the merger will be applied in the ideas of the games and the abstract rule book.


It is clear from the above that the Indian Courts have also applied these principles while deciding judgements impliedly not explicitly. This type of trends can be seen in the US and UK where the court has used the idea/expression dichotomy. The idea/expression dichotomy is an integral part of the British and American system which is been very popularly applied by the courts. As we have borrowed many things from them it will soon be possible to see that the Indian Courts will also apply the doctrines explicitly.

[1] 101 U.S. 99 (1879)

[2] 45 F.2d 119

[3] Adarsh Ramanujan, Prateek Bhattacharya and Esheeta Gupta, Justicia US Law, Idea Expression Dichotomy in Copyrightlaw,

[4] 56 F. 483

[5]446 F.2d 738(1971)

[6] IA 9823/2005

[7] 513 F.2d 1183

[8] 784 F.2d 44 (2d Cir. 1986)

[9] 323 F.3d 763 (9th Cir. 2003)

[10] Adarsh Ramanujan, Prateek Bhattacharya and Esheeta Gupta, Justicia US Law, Idea Expression Dichotomy in Copyrightlaw,

[11] Ibid.

[12] 2008 (38) PTC 416 (Del)

[13] IA No. 2352/2008 in CS (OS) 344/2008