10 August 2011

Idea Expression Dichotomy in Copyright Law


The idea-expression dichotomy was formulated to ensure that the manifestation of an idea (i.e. an expression) is protected rather than the idea itself. The doctrine has been widely used in the United States and is not really alien to Indian jurisprudence. Courts have repeatedly opined that ideas per se are not copyrightable; only the expression of an idea is copyrightable. An idea is the formulation of thought on a particular subject whereas an expression constitutes the implementation of the said idea. While many persons may individually arrive at the same idea, they can claim copyright only in the form of an expression to this idea. Such expression must be a specific, particular arrangement of words, designs or other forms. Thus, such a doctrine allows for several expressions to be available for the same idea.

History and Purpose

The earliest case regarding the idea-expression dichotomy is the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Baker v. Selden, which concerned the copyright over an account book. Selden had written a book which described an improved system of book keeping by a particular arrangement of columns and headings which made the ledger book easier to read. Baker accomplished a similar result, but using a different means of arrangement of columns and headings. The court held that while a copyright may exist over the publishing and sale of a book, it does not extend to the ideas and “art” illustrated in the book. The U.S. Supreme Court created a clear description between an idea and its expression, the primary reason being that otherwise, it would result in providing an undue scope of monopoly to the copyright holder and would amount to anti-competitive practice.

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(Adarsh Ramanujan is Associate, IPR Division, L&S, Prateek Bhattacharya and Esheetaa Gupta were interns at L&S)

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