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Suppose Bob owns the copyright to a TV show. Unfortunately, Bob isn't very smart, and he keeps the only copy in the world in a warehouse, and the warehouse accidentally burns down. Does this have any effect on Bob's ownership of the copyright?

At some point in the future, Bob wants to file a copyright infringement claim (like maybe someone with really good memory saw the show and recreated it from scratch). How can Bob prove infringement if there is nothing to compare it to?

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    Would you consider replacing the TV show with a poem, so that the version re-created from memory can be 100% identical to the original? That would remove a major variable that doesn't seem to be directly related to the question.
    – Someone
    Feb 7 at 20:20
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    I would also suggest replacing a TV show with something else. TV shows do not emerge from nothing. There will be tons of unused shots, dozens of actors, extras, camera operators, audio technicians and other people involved with scripts, notes and plenty of other imperfect "copies" of the show.
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 13:52
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    @MikeB It's not required in the US, either. It helps with enforcement and allows the holder to claim additional damages. (I think Jen's comment referred to the fact that a copy must be provided to the US Copyright office in order to register a copyright, which would negate the premise that the only copy was destroyed.)
    – chepner
    Feb 8 at 13:58
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    @Someone: The density of the copyrighted work, and its corresponding inability to be recreated from memory, seems like a key part of the question.
    – Corbin
    Feb 8 at 19:25
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    @chepner: Strictly speaking, it was required in the US (regardless of whether you wanted a copyright!), but the DC Circuit says that's a taking so now it's not required anymore.
    – Kevin
    Feb 8 at 23:41

3 Answers 3

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Does this have any effect on Bob's ownership of the copyright?

No. You can own a copyright to something you don't have a copy of. Enforcing it might indeed be difficult however.

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    +1 To put it another way, Bob has exactly the legal rights under copyright law after the fire as he did before -- he just has a lot less evidence with which to prove it.
    – bdb484
    Feb 8 at 1:25
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    Not difficult, it is unenforcable. Cf. "The two fundamental criteria of copyright protection [are] originality and fixation in tangible form" Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co.. Feb 8 at 13:31
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    @supercat From the death of the original playwright.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 8 at 17:59
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    @supercat Yes. Once the copyright arises from the work being placed in tangible form, there is no requirement that this be in continuous existence for the copyright to continue to exist.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 8 at 18:21
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    @CaneloDigital There is no claim for ideas. ideas are not copyrightable at all and never were
    – Trish
    Feb 9 at 19:42
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Though you don't have to register a copyright to hold the rights, you do have to register it before you can bring a lawsuit for infringement.

If the video was already registered, then there may still be a copy in the Library of Congress (or partial copy). If not, the person who lost the only copy would not be able to register it and thus not bring a suit.

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We can assume it's not a TV recording of the show, nor the original filming tapes with actors, etc. but only a manuscript, otherwise the work would have many copies lying around (tv station, etc.). So the show never got filmed nor streamed and the original manuscript got burnt.

Theoretically Bob owns the copyright, but how does he prove it? To be able to fully enforce a copyright you usually have to register your work in the corresponding administration to prove 2 things: a) the work is yours, and b) you had the idea at time X (before person B at a later time). Also if you have any proof of the original work with an official timestamp (post or email over a public service), that would be enouh, but in this case there is nothing, just a work hidden in a storage locker.

Now to be able to enforce in future the copyright, he would at least have to remember from scratch the main points in the TV Show, write them down again and register those with the US Copyright office. Otherwise Bob will face a lengthy trial where he will have to defend his claim that he had the original idea and somebody "stole" it from him, also taking into account, that the accused could argue he came by himself to a similar idea at an earlier point in time than Bob. That would be pretty costly for Bob with very few chances to win, except he would have proof that the accused got the idea from him (voice recording, email traffic of aknowledgment, etc.). Nevertheless if the accused did register his work properly before the claim and Bob did not even have the slightest register of his idea (not even an email to himself over a public server as gmail where he describes his idea), it will very very difficult for bob to defend his claim.

To register a claim to copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, the claimant must: (1) submit a properly completed application; (2) pay a nonrefundable fee; and (3) deposit the required number of copies of the works to be registered.

So it depends on the country. I know that in switzerland for example specially in early times, an (e)mail to yourself over a public (e)mail service (which cannot falsify dates), is enough to make a claim, even if the counterparty registers the work for himself at a later date. This would be a valid proof. Then the second step would be to compare the works to judge if they are similar enough to infringe copyright.

hope that helps

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  • Ideas are not copyrightable. Only the specific expression is.
    – Trish
    Feb 9 at 19:44
  • that's what I implicitly refer to... as a composer, poet, author, or even software-developer the idea is the artwork, the artwork is the materialized idea, or as you mention it: the specific expression. for example: a hardware-chip architecture is based on an idea, and the specific expression is the materialization of the idea. didn't I express that clearly enough? the term work (like artwork) is clear to me, and the concept too... Feb 11 at 23:01
  • Idea =/= specific expression in law. Chips also are not covered by copyright at all. The Idea of "Home alone" is "Bratty kid is left at home over christmas and defends his home against silly thieves." That is not protectable, because ideas have no creative expression. The movie Home Alone has creative expression and is copyrighted.
    – Trish
    Feb 11 at 23:05
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    As stated I know that well, hence the use of the term "work" in my answer. And yes, Chip architecture is copyrighted as stated here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiconductor_intellectual_property_core Feb 11 at 23:34

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