Copyright Part Three: A Work of Authorship

The U.S. Copyright Office designates copyright protection for “… original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed… ” (see 17 USC § 102(a)). Essentially there are three parts to the protection: (1) being a work of authorship, which we explore in more detail here, (2) being original, and (3) being fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The law provides a non-exhaustive list of articles protected as “works of authorship.” Here, we clarify literary works a bit and delve into some other obscure areas of copyright protection.

Story Characters original to your literary or dramatic work or motion picture are protectable. If one were to copy the main traits of your story characters, much of the dialogue, and the series of detailed actions of your story, including gestures, s/he will have violated your copyright.

Computer Programs, included within literary works protection, are inherently functional. However, you may still have “protectable nuggets” (Computer Associates International v. Altai). An initial step is to identify, by descending levels, the structure of the computer program. Filter out things, like elements toward efficiency and parts taken from the public domain, that will not get copyright protection. Also filter out non-original material, like code or algorithms copied from others, that will not be protectable by you. If there are “protectable nuggets” then seek an attorney for help.

Pictorial and Graphics that use your same vantage point, colors the sky similarly, copies details of buildings originally created by you, and copies other specific expressive elements, infringes on your copyright. A work can be functional and still have protected creative expression. For example, the protected expression of a mask can be separated from the non-protectable function of it.

Non-Useful Articles, which are not specifically and solely designed to be used, will get copyright protection. For instance, there was no copyright protection for a sculptor’s bike rack design (Brandir International v. Cascade Pacific Lumber). Examples of “non-useful” articles are a toy airplane or a painting. Similarly, even though people use computer programs, maps, and clocks, these are still “non-useful” articles within the meaning of the statute, because each conveys information.

Derivative Works, which are works based on one or more preexisting works, are protectable to the extent of the material contributed by the author of the derivative work. A derivative work may be based on a copyrighted work (like a parody derivative of a work) or a work from the public domain (like a derivative of the novel Pride and Prejudice). A translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form of an original work are derivative works. Other examples include editorial revisions, musicals, translations of a novel, sequel to a movie, and a country arrangement of a rock song.

Are you trying to conduct preliminary research on whether or not you have a legal claim to raise before you consult an attorney?

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