Copyright Bite #2 – Idea and Expression


There are many things that copyright does not protect. It does not protect information or facts, principles, concepts or ideas. This is often referred to as the idea-expression dichotomy. That is, copyright does not protect ideas, it only protects the way in which an author has chosen to express a particular idea in words or music or art. This is one of the most fundamental principles of copyright law.
For example, you may have a brilliant idea for a story, a photograph or a short film, but while it remains just an idea it is not protected by copyright. So, if you told someone else about your idea, there is nothing you can do to stop that person from writing a novel, or creating a work of art, based on your idea. Your idea, while it remains no more than an idea, is not protected by copyright.
It is only when you express your idea in some particular form that copyright springs into life. It is the way in which you express your particular ideas – whether through words, musical notes or brushstrokes on a canvas – that is protected by copyright.
So, if you wanted to create a picture of a city landscape that was immediately recognisable as London, you might think about including buildings or aspects of London life that are well known throughout the world: St Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, beefeater guards or the iconic black taxi.
Susie Brooks has created a wonderful image of London incorporating Big Ben, the London Eye and a red Routemaster Bus. You can do the same; you just can’t slavishly copy Susie’s work. That is, you are free to incorporate these ideas and images of London in your own picture but you’re not free to copy the way that other artists and illustrators have expressed their own visions of London.
In this way creators are given the opportunity to benefit from their own personal expression, while the general ideas underpinning a work remain available for others to use.


In the video, Dick, an illustrator, decides to draw a robot. Robots are cool, thinks Dick. His idea is that the robot should be made up of simple geometric shapes, but with a mouth like a thermometer or a ruler. His robot will also wear a bow tie. Bow ties are cool, thinks Dick.
The idea for creating a robot out of simple geometric shapes is not particularly original. If you search for images of robots on the internet, it is amazing how many different toys, drawings and illustrations of robots are made up of simple geometric shapes: a rectangular head and body, two large round eyes, and so on. What is original is the way that Dick has expressed his particular idea for a robot in the drawing he created. Dick’s drawing may be similar to thousands of other drawings of robots that already exist in the world but he has not copied any of those other drawings: Dick’s drawing is original and unique to him. It is protected by copyright.


Copyright protects only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. In the UK the law also typically requires that your work is fixed in some tangible form before it can be copyright-protected. Dick’s idea for a robot is fixed in a tangible form when he draws it in his sketch pad.
Generally, when considering artistic works, such as a photograph or a drawing, the point of creation and the point of fixation occur in the same moment. However, this is not necessarily true for literary, dramatic or musical works. Jazz musicians, for example, often improvise when playing or performing, but unless their improvisations are recorded or fixed in some way they will not be protected by copyright.


When creating new work it is natural to be inspired by the work of others. Indeed, copyright promotes creativity by providing authors with rights in their work while, at the same time, allowing others to make use of that work in certain ways. Dick cannot prevent other artists from drawing robots after they have seen his robot; he can only prevent others from copying his particular robot.
That said, it is not always easy to draw the line between the lawful borrowing of simple ideas and when borrowing becomes unlawful because you have copied, for example, too many ideas from someone else’s work or have copied just one or two ideas but in too much detail.
Jane is also an illustrator. She sees Dick’s drawing of a robot and is inspired. Robots are cool, thinks Jane, and she decides to draw her own. Her idea is that the robot should be made up of simple geometric shapes, but using shapes and features different from Dick’s robot.
There are some obvious similarities between Dick and Jane’s robots, but drawing robots is a bit like drawing people: there are always likely to be some common features of form and type while the differences lie in the detail. Jane has been inspired by Dick’s drawing but has not copied it in detail. Jane’s drawing is original and unique to her. It is protected by copyright, just as Dick’s drawing is protected by copyright.
The ideas, the building blocks and basic shapes and elements that both Dick and Jane have used in drawing their robots remain in the public domain, free for anyone to use in creating their own robots, or dinosaurs or even robot-dinosaurs.