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Who needs copyright?

By Revanth Ashok (Associate, Prodigy Legal LLP on 08 August, 2020)

This is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. Please discuss any legal questions with a lawyer.

You and your good friend brainstorm ideas for writing a movie script. You suggest that you are interested in writing a story with “Dragons, castles and magic” and discuss various parts of the story. Later, your friend publishes a book with “Dragons, castles and magic” as the central theme. You are shocked and you think he stole your proprietary idea and you think it is protected by copyright law. In the US, copyright is primarily governed by the Copyright Act, 1976. This copyright law does not protect ideas. Copyright law only protects expression of ideas fixed on a tangible medium. In fact, your friend who has expressed the “Dragons, castles and magic” idea on a tangible medium, i.e., book needs the protection of copyright law.

You love history and decide to make a list of important dates and events in the history of the US and compile it as a book. You think now it’s a great idea to obtain a copyright to prevent your work from being stolen by someone. But you cannot avail the protection of copyright law as copyright law in the US does not protect facts, historical facts, works created by the United States Government, ideas, concepts, principles, or discoveries, words, phrases, or familiar symbols.

But can your original expression of historical facts be protected under copyright law? In 1976, President Ford, in his autobiographical book “A Time to Heal”, described the pardoning of his predecessor President Richard Nixon. An author of The Nation quoted substantially from President Ford’s book. Harper & Row, who owned the copyright in the book, sued Nation. In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises held, among other things, that although President Ford’s description of the pardon was based on historical facts, his subjective expression of the history is protected by copyright. Consequently, the court held Nation Enterprises liable for infringing Harper’s Copyright.

Thus, authors who produce original and creative works can and need to avail the protection of copyright law.

From a script-writer to historian, you now turn to sculpting statues. You are a successful independent freelance sculptor. A company pays you a million Dollars to you for sculpting a statue. You do it and receive the money. You are now confused if you own the copyright for the sculpture or the company. Generally, for all types of independent contractors, unless you contract away your copyright in the statue to the company, it is likely that you own the copyright as you are hired as an independent contractor and you need to protect it.

This article is illustrative and not an exhaustive list of protections available under the copyright law. Other rights in the copyright include performer’s rights, publicity rights, etc. And more often than not the agreements that you made with your partner, friend, employer, University, etc. contains a provision for who owns the copyright. Thus, it is always safe to approach a lawyer if you are a creator to understand the rights and protections available to you under the copyright law.

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