Can You Copyright an Idea?

BeginWriterAnswerBookQ: 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.

“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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10 thoughts on “Can You Copyright an Idea?

    1. jezebellydancer

      I don’t think that is good enough. But you might have a case if someone uses your idea and character names and locations and other key elements, but you should consult a lawyer about this.

      But my big question is why are new authors so paranoid about someone stealing their ideas? The best way to protect your ideas is to get your story/novel written.

  1. Mike Poteet

    If I select a certain person from history and create an outline of my book concept that is specific to the person, their relationship to others in history, and an event that brings them together, if such a story doesnt yet exist, isn’t it specific enough to consider original and something that can be copywritten?

    Your example about Romeo and Juliet, if I specifically said Romeo and Juliet on my work, surely that would be infringing in its simple form (assuming the copywrite weren’t expired)….and since my story is specific to a persons name or specific person, it is not as general as say….rival gangs or families….

    what do you think?

  2. Kristen Howe

    HI Brian. My question isn’t a legal question. I want to know, how come when you read a book, there’s more lines on a page, than when you write your own for your manuscript in a WP document? Is it because, when it’s published, it shrinks in size to fit? I use Neooffice, since I have a Macintosh and Courier New 12 font. I’m curious and want to know, if it’s my font or something else to put more lines on a page? Thanks.

      1. TriangleGM

        I think I know what Kristen means. There are often times in my writing that I feel the need to present certain portions in a certain way. For instance, if a character is retelling an important poem about the legend he is about to task a hero with pursuing, I wouldn’t want the last two lines of the poem to end up on the next page. It’s just not ideal for aesthetics. My assumption is, in that sort of specific case, a discussion with the editor or publisher could might be needed. The only other solution I could suggest is to figure out what format the book is most likely to be published in, and change your page and font settings to match while writing it, so you can get a better idea how things will look on the page. You can zoom your view if needed to while working, and of course you’d have to switch the formatting back to manuscript style before submitting it. Unfortunately, that’s still not a full proof plan. I helped my wife SELF-publish a book of poems, and honestly getting everything to sit where we wanted it on each page took me a fewl hours of trial and error once I got into the publishing software. The book was only about fifty pages.

  3. Terry Rodgers

    I finished the first revision of my first manuscript. I have sent it to friends and family. At want point should I consider copyrighting my manuscript?

    Interested in reading it?

  4. Kim M.

    This is a different question about legal writing. Say you want to put part of a song in a story. Is it okay to do so? And do you just show reference from who sang the song originally? See I have seen a movie and i liked a song from it. And it goes well with my story. so how do i use the song and not get sued?

    1. jezebellydancer

      You need permission to quote song lyrics in your story. Get permission BEFORE you publish to save yourself a lot of trouble. Many times you will have to pay for the right to use lyrics. You can say a song title without any trouble, at least from what I have read. But best to consult an actual copyright lawyer just to be sure.


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