Basics: Stealing Ideas?

A great idea may be worth a hell lot to you, but can you really claim exclusive ownership over it? Is it legally possible to actually steal someone else’s idea?

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Tsahi Levent-Levi's Flickr photo stream
This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Tsahi Levent-Levi’s Flickr photo stream

The answer is no – the law allows you control over the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. Many people refer to this distinctive treatment as the Idea-Expression Dichotomy, and it is a very important and amusing aspect of intellectual property law, particularly copyright law.

(In India, the Delhi High Court has explained this concept in some detail in a 2008 decision of the Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford v. Narendra Publishing House 2008 (38) PTC 385)

Wait, so why should I know about the Idea-Expression Dichotomy?

Understanding the Idea- Expression distinction is important when trying to decide what aspects of your work can be under your exclusive ownership. From another perspective, the Idea- Expression distinction also lets you understand the boundaries between ‘being inspired’ and plagiarising or copying someone else’s work.

The following example might help clarify why it is important to distinguish between an idea and its expression.

  • A writer thinks up a brilliant storyline about a young girl who meets mythical creatures in a fabled forest that is being ruled over by an evil sorcerer. The story is about the adventures the girl has, and ends with the girl facing the sorcerer in an epic battle. She wins, overthrows the evil sorcerer and assumes the role of being the forest’s guardian.
  • After coming up with this story, the writer quickly types it all out and produces a manuscript, over which he retains copyright. He then decides to discuss publishing the manuscript as a book with a famous publisher.
  • Before he takes it to the publisher, the writer meets a stranger at a coffee shop who says she has this amazing idea about a young boy who gets lost in a magical forest, and befriends dragons and ogres living in the woods. The boy discovers that he is part of a prophecy that says he is the rightful King of the land, and so he sets out to overthrow the legion of demonic rulers who currently control the land.
  • Now the stranger (who we will call Writer 2) has heard about the first Writer’s story and she accuses him of stealing her idea! She says that a story about a child and an enchanted forest is really her idea, and so he i.e. the Writer better not think about getting his work published because according to her, he’s violated her copyright.

There are two things that you have to understand from the above example:

  1. Writer 2 does not have copyright protection because she has not made any tangible expression of her idea – her storyline is still an idea;
  2. Even if Writer 2 had written her storyline and made it into a manuscript, she’s still not going to be able to claim infringement. It’s a good thing that Writer 2 cannot claim exclusive ownership over her idea because otherwise, no one else would ever get to write a book with similar fantasy elements or worse everyone would be able to claim infringement!

So you’re saying that ideas are not copyrightable? I still don’t get it

Copyright protection cannot extend to ideas. The reason is actually quite simple – the minute you make an idea capable of being owned exclusively by one individual, you restrict usage of that idea. The truth is, that sometimes, artistic works – whether these are stories or dance dramas or songs or movies or paintings – can all be traced back to a one common source of inspiration or an idea. Different artists can interpret a singular idea in so many different ways, and in so many different mediums. If the law allowed exclusive ownership over one idea at a time, soon there would be no scope for re-interpretation and this would adversely affect the ways in which inspiration might work.

Copyright an idea, and the rest of the world loses out on the opportunity of using that idea in a different and possibly unique way. This is why the law only protects the expression of an idea – that way an author gets to protect his or her interpretation of an idea, but the idea still remains open and available for use by others.

Wait, so is this why movies have the same story lines?

Yes! There are tons of movies and stories that employ a plotline that is essentially the same. For example, the idea of star-crossed lovers and family feuds is an idea that was successfully used by Shakespeare when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, or when West Side Story was made, or even when Romeo and Juliet was adapted as a movie in 1996.

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photostream of the Library and Archives-Canada
This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photostream of the Library and Archives-Canada

Children’s stories often feature mythical magical elements – songs can be about heartache and heartbreaks – there can be different kinds of choreography and dance arrangements that might revolve around the idea of courtship – all of this is ok because it’s the expression that is the actual story; the lyrics and composition of the song; and the choreography itself that is protected by law – not the underlying idea or premise.

Certain countries also understand that works of art like movies might have some stock elements – for example, all Westerns feature horses, cowboys, sunsets; all these are considered stock elements and so one Western cannot claim infringement by another Western for having used a scene with a cowboy on his horse, riding into the sunset. This stuff is protected under a doctrine called Scenes A Faire (Yes it’s a French word, so apologies for the lack of the right accents).

But what if there are only so many ways in which you can express an idea – is the idea copyrightable then?

In some unique situations, the law recognizes the fact that an idea can only be interpreted in a limited number of ways and thus, there can only be a limited number of ways in which to express that idea. In such a situation a Court will not extend copyright protection to the expression since both the idea and its expression have merged inexplicably. This is known as the merger doctrine and there’s a super famous case about a ‘Bee pin’ (non Indian) that you could look up if you wanted to.

So as an artist, why do I really need to know about this?

It’s not uncommon to hear allegations and accusations of one person stealing another person’s creative idea. Now while it might be possible to argue about this in a court of law, the hard truth is, that if you had a good idea and you chose not to express it in some kind of tangible form, then it becomes difficult to prevent another artist from using the idea because technically they didn’t steal anything from you. This works the other way around too meaning if someone decides to accuse you of stealing their idea, remember that they’re wrong. Unless your form of expression is substantially similar to theirs, there’s no way someone can accuse you of stealing their idea because they never owned it to begin with.

I hope that the Idea-Expression distinction was a little easier to understand, but in case you have queries that please do remember to leave a comment, or go ahead and write to me for a little bit more clarity on the subject.

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