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The Exceptions to the Rule: Top 5 Things You Can’t Copyright


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Nearly nothing in this world is original—most works are derived from past concepts and tweaked to seem one-of-a-kind. However, there are times when someone comes up with something no one has ever thought of before, which could significantly impact society or a specific group of people. If you feel like you’ve written a hit song or developed a winning recipe, you may want to consider copyrighting it.

Although it’s crucial to have your works copyrighted to avoid unauthorized duplication or use, it’s vital to note that not everything can be copyrighted. While nearly everything is covered by copyright law, some aren’t.

If you’re unsure whether your works are covered by copyright or not, read on below to know the things you can’t copyright:

1. Ideas, Methods, or Systems

Unfortunately, you can’t copyright an idea, whether it’s original or not. According to the American copyright laws, ideas, methods, and systems cannot be copyrighted because you haven’t expressed anything. Unless you put your thought into “expression” through words or another tangible form, you can’t become its copyright owner.

Copyright protection is not available for ideas or procedures for:

  • Making or building things;
  • Business operations or procedures;
  • Formulas and algorithms;
  • Scientific or technical methods or discoveries; and
  • Other concepts, processes, or techniques of operation.

For example, a scientist’s theory isn’t copyrightable because it’s an idea. However, an article that expresses and explains the theory is copyrightable. As such, you can feel free to use any idea, concept, or principle you come across for your online work without fear of liability.

Also Read: How Social Media Laws Can Impact a Business?

2. Commonly-Known Information

Facts are another thing that isn’t protected by copyright law, as only original works of authorship apply to copyright protection. Expressing that the earth revolves around the sun in an article doesn’t subject you to liability, as everyone knows this is true. Some examples of non-copyrightable facts include a country’s population, dates of birth, and the current president.

Although facts about the natural world or current and past events can be discovered, the individual who found it will not receive authorship that the law considers worthy enough to protect.

However, although facts can’t be legally protected, some information can be copyrighted if you’re the one who independently created it or the only person who knows about the truth.

A compilation of facts may also be protected by copyright law if the creator selected, coordinated, or arranged the facts in an original way. Some examples of a copyrighted compilation of facts include almanacs, encyclopedias, and cookbooks.

3. Works Created by the U.S. Government

Since copyright doesn’t cover any work of the United States Government, you’re free to use them. Although federal copyright law doesn’t apply to the work of state governments, state laws are uncopyrightable.

Here are the works of the American government that can’t be copyrighted:

  • Federal government press releases
  • Federal government officials’ speeches given during their employment
  • Federal judicial decisions
  • Federal statutes
  • Federal government reports

Meanwhile, works created by others that the government receives by assignment, bequest, or otherwise may be protected by copyright law. It’s also important to note thatOregon asserted copyright ownership on their revised statutes back in 2008.

Also Read: 5 Things Creatives Must Include in Collaboration Agreements

4. Titles, Names, Expressions, or Short Phrases

What’s the name of the catchy tagline you came up with for your company? No dice on a trademark.

The great news is that, while this is one of the things you can’t copyright, it can be protected with a trademark if it relates to your business (for example, goods, and services).

Exempted ones are:

  • Titles
  • Names
  • Short phrases
  • Product description
  • Business names
  • Pseudonyms
  • Recipes

Yes, you heard it right. Recipes are also included in this category. Copyright does not protect the listing of ingredients (even if they are your own recipe ingredients).

This holds true for formulations, substances, and prescriptions.

However, there are some exceptions, such as when recipes are collected in a cookbook. There may be a foundation for copyright protection if the recipe is accompanied by “substantial literary expression.”

5. Fashion

Contrary to popular belief, copyright law does not protect fashion (i.e., a shirt, dress, or another article of clothing).

Despite the reality that copyright law protects architectural design works (Circular 41) and visual arts works (Circular 40), fashion is all about clothing and accessories, which are deemed “useful articles” under copyright law.

A specific fabric design (for example, Burberry plaids) can be copyrighted, but not the whole outfit.

The Wrap

Anyone has the right to copyright their works, but you must be responsible for learning about what can and can’t be copyrighted to save yourself some trouble. With sufficient knowledge of copyright law, you’ll be able to craft a contract that protects your rights and ensures that you can do your business without issues!

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