Copyright exists in expression of idea and not in idea

The copyright exists in the particular for of language in which the information or idea is conveyed , and not in the idea. A person may have a brilliant idea for a story or for a picture but if he communicates that idea to an artist or play writer then the production which is the result of the communication of the idea is the copyright of the person who has clothed the idea in form whether by means of a picture or play and the owner of idea has no rights in that product.

Copyright does not subsist in ideas, concepts, principles, procedures, etc. It subsists only in the material form in which the ideas are translated. If a work has been created in one’s mind, copyright protection does not attach until the work is fixed in the tangible medium of expression (viz. when the word is converted to writing or keyed into word processor or other device).

The idea/expression dichotomy is a fundamental tension in copyright law. The principle is that ideas and concepts are available to all to use and that one is free to create his own expression of any concept or idea. Further, the lack of requirement of quality in copyright law(a work need not be novel, asthetic or of any particular quality to be eligible for copyright) also confirms with the principle that copyright protects expression but does not protect the idea underlying the expression. And where the idea and expression are inseparable , none is protected (Doctrine of merger). In other words where there is dilemma between choosing an original expression (when that amounts to monopoly over an idea) or making that idea free to all, copyright law chooses the latter course. This system of not protecting ideas and requirement of originality of expression disallows copying or exploitation of the same work, but allows the production of similar work.

Ideas are discussed as human mental conceptions or representations. They are not eternal Platonic forms that exist apart from such human conceptions and are waiting to be thought. Thinking is generally viewed as concept manipulation and thus, necessarily involves expressions. Thus, a contrast between ideas ad expressions has never been an issue.

The form/ expression does not add something to an idea that is already existing, independently of all the expressions. Also, the idea of writing cannot exist apart from some form/ expression. Thus, ideas are incepted to be expressions themselves, even in their simplest form, they will always be in some of expression. Thus the fact that “ideas are human conceptions” concludes that the ideas can’t exist apart from the only way of conceptualizing that is “Expression”.

The main difficulty with this dichotomy is that the courts and commentators never define clearly what they mean by “ideas” and “expressions” while relating to them. By only committing to the idea/expression dichotomy, one would just hypothesize the concept.

Copyright is a right given to or derived from works and it is not a right in novelty only of ideas. Copyright essentially protects the works of an author or creator and prevents others from copying such original work. It does not, however, bar others from coming to the same result through an independent process.

There exists no copyright in ideas. Copyright subsists only in the material form to which the ideas are translated. Two authors may have the same idea for a book. However the way they express themselves i.e., the way they put down their idea in a tangible form is what that makes a difference. It is the form in which a particular idea, which is translated that is, protected.

The primary reason for granting protection to expressions and not ideas is to protect the free flow of ideas. Ideas are too valuable to be copyrighted. The copyrighting of ideas would eventually bring creativity and innovation to a standstill. It is for this reason that the freedom to copy ideas is central to the structure of copyright law.

Copyright Law in India is governed by the Copyright Act, 1957. The Act is exhaustive with Section 13 of the Act defining the scope of existence of copyright by listing those works in which copyright subsists.

The Indian Copyright Act, by virtue of Section 13, grants protection to the following works:

1.  Original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works.

2. Cinematographic films.

3. Sound recording

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.

In Donoghue v. Allied Newspaper Ltd.1937 3 Ch. D. 503, it was held by Farewell J. that : “ …. If the idea, however, brilliant and however clever it may be, is nothing more than an idea, and is not put into any form of words, or any form of expression such as a picture or a play, then there is no such thing as copyright at all. It is not, until it is reduced in writing, or into some tangible form, that you get any right to copyright at all and copyright exists in the particular form of language in which , or in the case of a picture, in the particular form of the picture by which, the information or the idea is conveyed to those who are intended to read it or to look at it.”

Hollinrake v. Truswell 1894 Ch. 420, Lord Lindely observed that the defendant might have got her own idea form the plaintiff’s chart, but the defendant had not copied more than the plaintiff’s method of measuring. Copyright did not extend to ideas or schemes, or systems, or methods. It was confined to their expression; and if their expression was copied the copyright was infringed.

In R.G. Anand v. Delux Films AIR 1958 SC 1613, In this case , the plaintiff was a play writer and producer of some plays including the play ‘Hum Hindustani’. The plaintiff tried to consider the possibility of filming the said play and narrated the play to the defendant. The defendant, without informing the plaintiff, made a picture ‘New Delhi’, which was alleged to be based on the said play. The Supreme Court held that there could not copyright in an idea, subject-matter , themes, plots or historical or legendry facts and violation of the copyright in such cases was confined to the form, manner and arrangement and expression of the idea by the author of the copyrighted work.

Where the same idea is being developed in a different manner, it is manifest that the source being common, similarities are bound to occur. But if the defendants work is nothing but a literal (colorable) imitation of the copyrighted work with some variations here and there, it would amount to violation of copyright. Thus the copy must be substantial and material one. A copy is that which comes so near to the original as to give to every person seeing it the idea created by the original. This is a sure and safe test to determine the violation of copyright.

Justice Pathak , in this case, observed: “In another, and perhaps a clearer case, it may be necessary for this court to interfere and remove the impression which may have gained ground that the copyright belonging to an author can be readily infringed by making immaterial changes, introducing insubstantial differences and enlarging the scope of the original theme so that a veil of apparent dissimilarities is thrown around the work now produced. The court will look strictly at not only blatant examples of copying but also at reprehensible attempts at colourable imitation.”

Copyright is an incorporeal property. In Jeffreys v. Boosey (1854) 4 HLC 815, it was observed: “ In the field of literary work the words chosen by the author to express his ideas are peculiar to himself and no two description of the same idea or fact will be in the same words, just as no two answers to a question will be the same. The order and arrangement of each man’s word is as singular as his countenance. Although if two authors composed originally in the same order of words each would have a property in the composition, still the probability of such an occurance would be less than there should be two countenances that could not discriminated.” Thus an abstract idea is not protected, but what is protected is the material form in which ideas are translated.

In Deeks v. Well AIR 1933 PC 26, the Court observed that as there is not copyright in ideas, it is not infringement of copyright to adopt the ideas of another or to publish information derived form another, provided there is no copying of the language in which these ideas have, or that information has been previously embodied.

Different people may work upon the same idea, as they frequently do. This is familiar enough in literature and in conventional artistic works where different people may work upon the same subject, but what they produce even though they adopt a precisely similar plot or a completely identical subject, is their own version which is entitled to protection under the Copyright Act.

In Najma Heptulla v. M/s Orient Longman Ltd. AIR 1989 Del 63, the Delhi High Court observed that a literary work consists of matter or material or subject which is expressed in a language and is written down. Both the subject matter and the language are important. It is difficult to comprehend, or to accept, that when two people agree to produce a work where on provides the material, on his own, and other expresses the same in a language which presentable to the public than the entire credit for such an undertaking or literary work should go to the person who has transcribed the thoughts of another. If there is intellectual contribution by two or more persons pursuant to a pre-concerted joint design to the composition of a literary work then those person have to be regarded as joint authors.

In Barbara Taylor Bradford v. Sahara Media Entertainment Ltd. 2004 (28) PTC 474 Cal (DB), the Calcutta High Court observed that the law protects originality of expression but not originality of the central idea or plot, not merely because of the balancing of two conflicting policies. The first policy is that the law must protect originality of artistic work, thereby allowing artists to reap the fruits of their labour and stopping unscrupulous pirates from enjoying those fruits. The second policy is that the protection must not become an over protection, thus, curbing down future artistic activity. If mere plots and characters were to be protected, no original artist could write anything “original” at all, on a similar plot or on similar characters.

 Therefore, We can say that Copyright exists in expression of idea and not in idea.


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