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Can You Copyright an Idea?

Learn the copyright rules you need to know to protect your idea from copyright infringement.

Q: I have a fantastic idea for a book. I'm unclear on copyright rules and I want to protect my idea from someone else copying it. What steps should a person take in order to protect an idea until it comes into print? –Brian

A: I hate to break the bad news, but you can't copyright an idea. Nobody can. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act specifically states: "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.

BeginWriterAnswerBook

"So if copyright law doesn't protect an idea, what exactly does it protect?

Copyrights cover "original works of authorship" that the author fixes in a tangible form (written on paper, typed on computer, scribbled by crayon on a napkin, etc.). In other words, it protects the specifics of your book after it's written. No one can steal, reprint or profit from your work without your consent. Though, no matter how hard you try, you can't safeguard the idea behind your story.

Think about it like this: No one directly copied William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet word-for-word and slapped their name on it, but they have used his idea—a love story about two young people from rival families— over and over again. West Side Story fits the bill (two lovers from rival gangs). Even Disney's High School Musical has the same plot (rival high school cliques).

(FREE DOWNLOAD: What is Plagiarism? - And other Copyright Law FAQs)

Now before all you overachievers point out that Shakespeare's work has out-lived its copyright protection and is now part of the public domain, remember this: both West Side Story and High School Musical are copyrighted, so no one can steal significant details from them. But, much like your idea, they can't stop others from using the basic concept.

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