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What Copyright Protects

Copyrights, patents and trademarks are each valuable parts of an intellectual property portfolio, but people often find it difficult to keep straight which intellectual property is protected by which set of rules. Each branch of intellectual property is designed for a very specific type of protection, and conflating them can often cause problems. Take, for example, copyright law, which is designed to protect artistic expressions like books, music, and visual arts. One of the earliest portions of the federal copyright law states that copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium expression.” This sentence is a prime example of legalese. However, it makes more sense if it is broken down into its two parts, “original works of authorship” and “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”

Original Works of Authorship

The first portion of the copyright protection states that it protects “original works of authorship.” A work of authorship extends far beyond the ordinary English use of the word author, which is limited to books. An author in copyright law is anyone who creates a “work,” which can be virtually any artistic expression: books, songs, paintings, sculptures, and more are all protected under modern copyright law.

The other portion of this part of copyright protection discusses “originality.” Originality under copyright law is an extraordinarily low bar. It merely requires “some creative spark.” Judges presiding over copyright cases do not judge the quality of the work, only that it passes the low originality part. For instance, a rudimentary painting might qualify for copyright protection despite the fact that it does not add much to the art world. Conversely, a company cannot copyright the organization of a database, if that organization is obvious or without any creativity, such as putting a phone book in alphabetical order.

Fixed in any Tangible Medium of Expression

The second part of the law that defines what copyright protects requires the work to be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This is an important limitation on copyright. Copyright requires the work to be laid down on some medium like paint, sculpture, or written language. However, the law is reasonably flexible with regard to what medium the author chooses to fix their creation in.

Intellectual property lawyers often say that copyright protects expressions rather than ideas, but that distinction can be hard to visualize without examples. One good example of this is Jackson Pollock, an artist famous for popularizing splatter painting. Pollock could copyright any individual splatter painting, but he could not claim a copyright over the entire concept of splatter painting since that is an idea rather than an expression. A similar issue arises in the context of recipes. The federal government does not allow people to claim copyrights in recipes because a written recipe is an idea. It only becomes an expression when a person actually follows the steps of the recipe and makes the food.

If you believe that you have a copyright that is being infringed, reach out to a Florida intellectual property attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP today. Our firm is here to help you exercise your rights.

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