When Is A Product Not Protected By Copyright Law

Copyright law epitomizes the very idea of dispute, primarily because it is applied in so many situations that seem absurd. Believe it or not, the song “happy birthday” was held under copyright for a long time, and could not be used commercially without the royalty requirement kicking in–until a judge ruled against the copyright protection for that song. That leads to a good question: when is a product, service, or artist’s work not protected under traditional copyright law?

Freedom of Expression. If Americans are obsessed with anything above all else, it’s our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We have the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, under which falls our freedom of expression. Copyright law draws a line between expression of concepts or ideas, and the very nature of those concepts or ideas.

For example, the law protects the title Harry Potter from those who would wish to steal its characters. But another author could steal the plot and narrative almost entirely, expressing both in his or her own words and using different characters. That’s why lawsuits from one artist against another for stealing plot are so difficult to win.

Expiration Dates. Ah, but nothing lasts forever–not even copyright. You’ve probably heard of the public domain, which is a collection of works, the copyrights of which have long since expired. Expiration is dependent on the type of copyright. When most authors die, the copyright under which their work falls usually expires after 70 years have elapsed.

Fair Use. We enjoy other freedoms, which is why satirical shows like Family Guy or South Park are so successful. They use themes and ideas and even exact names from other shows we love, or rip apart various organizations and institutions to expose hypocrisy. They’re allowed to do that because criticism falls into the category of fair use. Other topics that fall into this category are education, research, and commentary. That’s why we can also teach Harry Potter in a college course without first obtaining the rights.

According to the Copyright Act, protections are not included for a number of works, including ideas, procedures, systems or processes, principles, or discoveries. It doesn’t matter how well you elaborate your work, you can’t copyright facts once publication occurs. You can only keep them to yourself beforehand.

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