Skip to main content

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.

*********************************************************************************************************************************
Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Check out my humor book, Oh Boy, You're Having a Girl.
Sign up for my free weekly eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

wd-Brian-web-19.jpg
Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

In this post, author C. Hope Clark shares tips on how freelance writers can use Instagram as a tool to find more freelance writing connections, assignments, and overall success.

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jane Porter discusses celebrating the nature of getting older in her new romance novel, Flirting With Fifty.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 610

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a "different way of seeing the world" poem.

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

How To Research Topics Like a Journalist

From in-person interviews to scouring the web for credible sources, journalist Alison Hill shares tips on how to research topics like a journalist.

Can I Have Your Attention?

Can I Have Your Attention?

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, an announcement is about to change the course of history.

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Emmy nominated comedy writer Glenn Boozan discusses how a funny piece of perspective turned into her new humor book, There Are Moms Way Worse Than You.

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Girl from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.