Copyright Law Doesn’t Protect Ideas

In the United States, creators of original works can protect and control use of those works through copyright law. The works subject to protection range from literature to sound recordings to computer software. The federal government’s power to protect copyright was written into the U.S. Constitution, and in the Copyright Act of 1976, Congress adopted a single federal system of statutory protection for copyrighted works that creates uniformity across the states and supersedes all state laws.

The Act was designed to protect a creative work from the time of its creation, not its publication. It provided that original works created after 1978 remain the property of the creator for his or her lifetime, plus 70 years. A work need not be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office for copyright to take effect, but it must be registered in order to bring civil claims under the Copyright Act.

Accordingly, although Illinois has its own statutory protections, copyright law in Illinois is largely governed, or “preempted,” by the federal Act and copyright infringement cases involving Illinois parties will usually be brought in federal court. The Illinois Supreme Court, in People v. Williams, confirmed that federal law will control when (1) the works “are fixed in tangible form and come within the subject matter of copyright as defined by the Act,” and (2) the rights granted under state law are “equivalent” to any of those exclusive rights “within the general scope of copyright” provided by the Act. In other words, in order for the state to bring a copyright case, the state claim must be sufficiently different from the federal Act in what it seeks to enforce and punish. The Williams court noted that Congress intended to apply both civil and criminal sanctions to copyright infringement, thereby barring state criminal prosecution under Illinois’ antipiracy law.

The Copyright Act also bars state law misappropriation claims for “uncopyrightable” elements within copyrighted works. These are things that are not capable of being copyrighted, including facts, concepts, discoveries, ideas, and processes. This principle was colorfully illustrated in Publications International, Ltd. vs. Meredith Corp., a 1996 case before the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals involving an Illinois book publisher that was accused of poaching various recipes from another publisher’s cookbook. Even though the recipes were similar, the court found that a recipe is just a collection of facts (or ingredients) and processes that cannot be granted copyright. The plaintiff publisher could not claim ownership of those individual recipes, only the “form and manner” in which it had presented them. Copyrightable works must “possess some minimum indicia of creativity, [and] be ‘original intellectual conceptions of the author’” the court said. Because no person can claim original conception of facts, they are excluded from copyright protection.” The court explained that even though copyright can apply to compilations such as cookbooks, the elements within those compilations are not themselves copyrightable because they are not products of original creative expression.

Another recent Seventh Circuit case applied similar reasoning to a scientific work. In Seng-Tiong Ho v. Taflove, Northwestern University researchers and creators of an atomic model brought a copyright infringement action alleging that colleagues illegally published equations, figures, and text copied from the plaintiffs’ work. The court held that these were “unprotectable concepts, ideas, methods, procedures, processes, systems, and/or discoveries” that “attempt to represent and describe” scientific principles that were not created by the plaintiffs. “Facts do not owe their origin to an act of authorship,” the court concluded. “The distinction is one between creation and discovery: The first person to find and report a particular fact has not created the fact; he or she has merely discovered its existence.”


People v. Williams, 235 Ill. 2d 178 (2009)

Publications Intern., Ltd. v. Meredith Corp., 88 F.3d 473 (1996)

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