Under most (or possibly all) cases ideas are not protected by copyright (or some other IP). Is there a reason for this? It is because it doesn't make sense to protect ideas with copyright?

2 Answers 2


In United States law, this distinction has been justified by First Amendment values. See Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985).

copyright's idea/ expression dichotomy "strike[s] a definitional balance between the First Amendment and the Copyright Act by permitting free communication of facts while still protecting an author's expression." No author may copyright his ideas or the facts he narrates.

If copyright protected ideas, it could effectively prohibit the communication of particular thoughts, topics, facts, propositions, etc. By restricting the protection to expression of those ideas, copyright is giving protection to (and incentivizing) the production of a expressive work in the world.

By establishing a marketable right to the use of one's expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.

However, ideas can be protected by patent. Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879). The manner of doing something--a process--this is an idea that can be protected by patent.


I agree with Jen that the best rationale for not treating ideas as protectable property is the same Lockean intellectual freedom ideas that gave rise to the First Amendment, but I also claim that if you understand what gave rise to copyright law in the first place, you will understand why ideas were not protected by copyright law.

Legal copyright originated from earlier English laws restricting the use of the printing press and the publication of books, which came about as a means of censorship. Only the Stationer's Company had the right to print books, through the Licensing of the Press Act 1662. This act lapsed, leading to a certain degree of chaos in publishing, and was eventually replaced with the Statute of Anne, which penalized the import of trade of unlicensed and foreign books, and via amendments, the Stationer's monopoly on publishing was undermined so that anyone could trade in copies of books.

As copyright law developed, the nature of that right changed radically. Originally it was a means of preventing unregulated dissemination of ideas, implemented by controlling who could print copies of books, eventually assigning that right to the author (not the publisher). In the US, the Copyright Act 1790 recognized that the author alone has the right to "print, reprint, publish or vend" a "map, chart, book, or books". Given this emphasis on physical reproduction, copyright law did not (as it does now) protect the expression of an idea, it protects the right to print a concrete object. It is only with the more recent shift in perspective to protecting the labors of the mind that it would even be imaginable that there could be legal protection of ideas.

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