What works cannot be copyright protected?

Copyright laws set specific requirements for which works can be protected and which cannot. In order to be protected by copyright, the work must be original and it must be fixed in a tangible form. Works that cannot be copyright protected include any idea’s procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept or principle, or discovery. Learn more about copyright law in our free legal guide below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Not all works can receive copyright protection. Title 17, the copyright title, specifically lists what can and can’t be considered copyrightable. Section 102 of the copyright code states:

(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works.

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained,illustrated, or embodied in such work.

From this section, there are two distinct requirements that if not satisified, the work cannot be copyrighted:

Originality Requirement

The first requirement for a work to be copyrighted is that it must be original. Works without enough “originality” (creativity) to merit copyright protection such as titles, names, short phrases and slogans, familiar symbols or designs, font design, ingredients or contents, facts, blank forms, etc. cannot be copyrighted. There is great tension here between granting incentive and financial reward when something is worthy, but not granting it to things so basic and commonly used that everyone would be forced to pay. Thus, the law is somewhat unclear in this area. 

Another exception that has recently been added to this category is computer code. Because code is so repetitive at its base, single lines of code are not considered original. Instead, copyright protection for programs is granted for the overall verbiage and interface of the created program, while the function of the program is sent for patenting. 

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Tangible Form Requirement

The second requirement under the copyright code is that the work be fixed in a tangible form. Intangible works cannot be copyrighted simply because there is no way to verify the work.

Examples of intangible forms include: choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded. So, if you are planning an improvisational performance that you wish to protect, make arrangements for some form of recording to be done. The recording then becomes a defined fixed form under copyright code and is copyrightable.

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