What can be copyrighted?

Copyright law protects creative works “fixed in any tangible medium of expression” such as:

  • books
  • movies
  • musical scores
  • sound recordings
  • paintings
  • photographs
  • websites
  • video games
  • architecture

The complete description of what is protected by copyright is provided in Section 102 of the Copyright Act.

What can not be copyrighted?

Copyright law does not protect facts or ideas, just the creative choices involved in communicating them. In other words, copyright protects the expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity could not be copyrighted, but the article he published to explain the theory could be.

The following do not qualify for copyright protection:

  • Facts
  • Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression
  • Ideas, concepts, or principles
  • Words, Phrases, or Familiar Symbols

Facts

Facts are not protected under copyright law because copyright only applies to “original works of authorship.” Although the level of creativity required to be “original” is extremely low, facts do not have the requisite level of creativity. For example, baseball scores, telephone numbers, dates of birth, and the number of people at a protest are facts and not protected by copyright.

At the same time, there may be situations in which a compilation of facts may be protected if the creator selected, coordinated, or arranged the facts in an original way. For example, a cookbook may arrange ingredients in a creative and original way as part of its recipe, in which case, the creator of the work would have a copyright in the creative arrangement of the recipe, but not the recipe itself.

Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression

Copyright protection only applies to “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Consequently, an improvisational speech that has not been notated or recorded is not protected by copyright, though a plan for the speech could be copyrightable.

Ideas, concepts, or principles

Copyright does not cover ideas, concepts, and principles themselves, only the form in which they are expressed. For instance, merely coming up with an idea does not make you the copyright owner because you haven’t actually expressed anything. You become the copyright owner only when you put that idea into “expression” through words (e.g., a blog post or article) or other tangible form (e.g., in a video, a photograph, or a podcast).

Words, Phrases, or Familiar Symbols

In general, copyright does not protect individual words, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; or mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.

While copyright protection may not apply, be aware that trademark law protects certain words, short phrases, slogans, symbols, and designs. For example, trademark law protects the word “Apple,” the slogan “Got Milk?” and the Nike symbol of the “swoosh.” See the Digital Media Law Project resource on using trademark protected words, phrases, or symbols for more information.