Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It’s Not About the Idea, It’s About the Expression

Hey all, I'm back with another dose of Copyright. I'm excited. Are you excited?? (Just say "Yes, Jen, I'm excited," K?)

In truth, I AM excited about this week's post because it starts diving into the stuff that we as writers are most concerned about:

Our ideas!

Once again, disclaimers to boot.

Disclaimer: If you're expecting high-faluting terminology here, turn back now. I'm going to speak in as non-lawyerly a fashion as I possibly can. For one, I don't want to confuse myself. Second: I went to law school, yes, but I never took nor passed the bar. I am not a licensed attorney. This is not legal advice, and should not be taken as such. Should you base any of your future actions on the information included in this post, you do so at your own risk. Blah blah blah, yada yada yada. Got it, fu?

Allriiiiiiiiiiiiighty then.

So, you have an idea? Great. Wanna know the hard truth about that great idea?

It's not protected by copyright.

WHOA….cool your jets. I know you're probably screaming at your computer at this very moment. "What do you mean it's not protected?!?! What the hell, Jen??? Are you telling me any Joe Schmoe off the street could come along and steal my ideas and not get in any trouble??"

Well, yeah…that's what I'm saying. Sorry. But but BUT!!!! There's a caveat involved here.

They can steal your ideas, yes… but they can't steal your expression of said ideas.

Let me explain with a little illustration.

Let's take a well known story…Hmmm…Annie. You know, orphan Annie… cute little red-head gets saved from the evil clutches of Miss Hannigan by the rich and powerful Daddy Warbucks.

*We now interrupt this program for a brief musical interlude*

Jen Sings: The sun will come out tomorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tooomorrow, there'll be sun! Just thinkin' about tomorrow…clears away—

Ahem – Sorry. Where was I?

Okay…so we all know the basic story, right? The truth of the matter is that I could decide tomorrow (pun intended) to write a story about an orphaned girl who gets saved from an orphanage by some money-bags who one day realizes he wants to play Daddy. To make it fun, I could throw in a spinster lady who tries to capitalize on the deal. One who just so happens to HATE children. Heck, I could even throw in the shaggy dog. All LEGAL, to a point. Tacky, yes….but legal.

The thing is…while we all love little Orphan Annie, the story itself isn't all that original. I.e. the IDEA isn't original. I could use that idea—write it ten different ways—and still not violate any sort of copyright. However, there is a pretty thick line in the sand that I wouldn't be able to cross.

That's where the EXPRESSION of this idea comes in. That is what's protected under copyright.

So…how does the story go?

We meet Annie in an orphanage. She's sad, wants a family…and is sorta terrorized by the lady running the orphanage. A woman, given her job, who should probably love children, but doesn't. Annie meets Daddy Warbucks, a emotionally shut-off millionaire who doesn't have children. There's instant chemistry between the two and he wants to adopt her. Miss Hannigan has other plans, though, and mayhem ensues.

There, of course, are a lot of other little details involved. The music, for one. The dialogue. The sequencing of events in the story. The characters themselves. They all combine to create a story that is completely original to its author/s (It was a book first, of course…later a stage musical…later a musical on the big screen… Lotsa authors involved. J).

So, I come along and write a story based on the same idea. And hot damn if I don't start off in an orphanage with a bunch of singing orphans, bemoaning how hard life is. Instead of It's a Hard-Knocked Life, I start off with a little number entitled "Life's full of Hard Knocks, but thems the breaks, kid" and have a drunken Miss Flannigan interrupt and shoo them all off to bed…only to have one little girl—a Shirley Temple look-alike—go off alone and start singing "The Clouds are Gonna clear up the day after next"… and so on and so forth.

If I were to write a story that mirrored the original so closely that you'd instantly say to yourself…My goodness, but that sounds a whole heck of a lot like ANNIE, I've likely violated copyright. I've hedged TOO closely to the previous author's EXPRESSION of this story IDEA.

In Summary:

The Idea: NOT protected.

The Expression: PROTECTED.

Ya with me so far? Any questions?

And now…for your musical enjoyment.

1 comment:

  1. Shucks Jen, I wish half my teachers had been as fun as you! I might actually have studied law instead of chickening out