Understanding copyright limitations: What can you not copyright?

On Behalf of | May 20, 2023 | Copyright Law

Copyright law offers protection for original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. This protection is crucial as it prevents others from using the work without permission. However, it is also important to understand that you cannot copyright everything.

In this article, consider some of the key categories of things that do not fall under copyright protection. This knowledge can help creators understand the boundaries of copyright and the type of content they can use without infringing on someone else’s rights.

1. Facts and ideas do not receive copyright protection

One major category of things that you cannot copyright is facts. The reason behind this is simple: facts do not originate from a person’s creative expression, but instead exist independently in the world. Similarly, you cannot copyright ideas. Although you can copyright a specific expression of an idea, the idea itself remains open for anyone to use.

2. Works by the US government are in the public domain

Works created by the US federal government do not receive copyright protection. They are part of the public domain and can be freely used by anyone. This includes many types of documents, reports and images. However, it is important to note that this does not always apply to works created by state or local governments.

3. Common property and copyright

Additionally, you cannot copyright things that are common property. This includes words, phrases, symbols or designs that are commonly used and recognized in everyday life. In other words, anything that has become a common part of our shared knowledge and culture is not protected by copyright.

4. Copyright and useful articles

You cannot copyright useful articles, or objects with an intrinsic utilitarian function. This includes clothing, furniture and machinery among other things. While you may copyright the design or artwork incorporated into a useful article, the utilitarian aspects of the item are not protected.

While copyright law provides essential protection for original works of authorship, it is equally important to recognize its limitations. Understanding these limitations can help creators avoid copyright infringement and confidently use non-copyrighted material in their work.