In the world of copyright law, you’re always protecting something concrete and defined–a book, a song, a video, an image. But what you’re really protecting–or trying to, at least–is the idea behind it. How do you copyright an idea, especially when it comes to more ephemeral versions of content? This post takes a stab at explaining it.
Copyright An Idea: As A Dance
How in the world would you go about copyrighting a dance? This was an issue that the Martha Graham Dance Company famously ran into.
In her will, Martha Graham left her estate to a close friend. After she passed, the friend claimed to own 70 of Graham’s dances and threatened to prevent the Martha Graham Dance Company from performing them. The case went to court, and about 45 of the dances were proven to belong to the Martha Graham Dance Company, as she created them as an employee.
But…this still left a handful of dances unclaimed.
The truth is, dances are tricky to capture and pass down through anything other than a physical performance. Even copyrighting a video recording of a dance would only prevent that recording from being shown without permission, and wouldn’t necessarily affect permissions pertaining to the actual performance of the dance.
Takeaway: Dances can’t always be copyrighted, but any writing done about the dances, video recordings of the dances, or costumes designed for your dancers can be–which ultimately protects your brand image.
Copyright An Idea: As A Speech
Speeches are, in some ways, the purest form of presenting an idea. You take a concept and speak about it to a group of people, sharing your idea. So can a speech be copyrighted?
The quick answer is yes–in several different forms. There’s the text of the speech, which can be registered with the US Copyright Office as a literary work. (Especially if it’s reproduced as a literary work, like David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water.) Then, if your speech is recorded via audio or video, that audio and video can be registered as well.
In fact, copyrighting a speech is not notably different from the steps you would take to copyright an e-course.
Takeaway: Speeches are several forms of copyrightable content combined into one media format. They might seem immaterial, but you can register the copyrights in a few different ways, protecting yourself from all angles.
Copyright An Idea: As A Recipe
Recipe copyright is fairly fraught. If you’re a chef or a food blogger, recipes are how you make your living, and the idea of someone else stealing your concept of putting together ingredients in a particularly drool-worthy way can be downright terrifying. While you can’t ever stop copycats entirely, copyright law does protect certain forms of recipes.
You can’t register the copyright on a list of ingredients–which should feel fairly obvious. After all, nobody could reasonably copyright a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Where copyright law actually gets involved is in the realm of “substantial literary expression“; in other words, the detailed story, explanation, or illustration that often accompanies recipes in cookbooks or blog posts.
Takeaway: You can’t copyright the idea of combining particular ingredients to form a dish, but you CAN copyright your description and/or explanation of the dish.
Registering the copyrights on your work isn’t about playing “gotcha” with potential pirates! It’s about protecting yourself. And when your work isn’t quite as clearly defined as a book or a song, it’s worth exploring your options. There are a ton of effective ways to copyright an idea–it just takes a little imagination.
Photo credit: MD Duran