Can you copyright an idea?

Let’s say you had a really great idea for a book or a movie but for various reasons you don’t have the time to sit and right the whole thing but you do have a detailed synopsis. Can you copyright this idea? If a book or film came out with a similar idea could you sue? If I took this hypothetical synopsis and stuck it in a safety deposit box would this be proof enough to stand up in court?

Problem is, ideas seem to float around the cosmos and several people do get the same idea at, more or less, the same time without any hanky panky going on. I’ve heard that not only did Marconi was far from the first guy to invent the radio, for example, and that a guy with an equally good idea for the telephone followed Bell into the patent office. Must be frustrating. Also, I can well imagine that a person could read a book and, years later, come up with the same plot but have no idea it was stolen.

No doubt somebody more knowlegable will answer your question, but I think I’d write out my synopsis (in my own handwriting), get it notorized, send it through the mail to a lawyer and have him keep it for me. Then if somebody with lots of money appears to steal my plot, I’d try to settle out of court. I wouldn’t sue unless I, too, had lots of money in which case I would more likely be sitting under a palm tree in Bora Bora writing my novel. Then, when my novel was published, the other guy would likely sue me. Sigh. Life is hard.

An “idea” itself is can not be protected by copyright. The expression or “embodiment” of an idea can be.

So, no, you could not sue if someone came out with a very similar “idea.” You could sue if someone copied your script, you could sue if someone copied your song, and you could sue if someone copied your manuscript. But if you have a concept, the concept alone can not be copyrighted.

Also, for most copyright suits to stand up, there has to be some proof of “access.” If you and only you has read your synopsis and it has otherwise been locked in a safe deposit box, then you’d have a tough time proving that anyone else could have read it in order to steal your idea.

No - you cannot copyright an idea.

If you write a synopsis then the copyright to that synopsis would belong to ouy. However, nothing of the abstract content would be copyrighted - just the frame that they are set in.

Oo - my first simulpost! I feel special! sniff

No, you cannot copyright an idea.

An idea alone doesn’t do you or anyone else much good anyway. It’s what you do with the idea that counts. “Earth is invaded by aliens” is an idea, but that doesn’t make Independence Day a copyright infringement of War of the Worlds.

Short answers: No, no, and no.

And sorry, yolady but never, never, ever suggest that you mail something to yourself to protect an idea or a copyright. This is a big flashing neon sign that you are an amateur. There has never been a court case upholding this as a defense. If you look you’ll find a million threads here saying so.

That’ll teach me to take the time to quote and cite. :wink:

Oh, and yolayd, your examples have nothing to do with copyright. Those deal with patents.

Inventions like the radio and the telephone are far more likely to be duplicated than are copyrightable works. If Edison hadn’t invented the phonograph, someone would have invented something like it, but if Charles Dickens hadn’t written A Christmas Carol or Mark Twain hadn’t written Tom Sawyer, I doubt someone else would have.

groans at typo and crawls out of thread

While the previous posters are in essence correct, I should point out that in the entertainment industry a rather different practice has arisen of so-called formats. If you have a reasonably developed concrete idea of a television show, you can sell it to a TV station and they do pay you for it. Example: Big Brother. OTOH, they are apparently free to develop a different format that looks similar. Example: all other real-life tv afterwards.

A format is very close to the ‘idea’ you are talking about, but the main difference is that it has to be significantly more developed. AFAIK, entertainment industry already respected ‘rights’ to formats before it was contested (and upheld, at least over here) in court.

True only if you add ifs and ands and buts. Format and presentation are still protectable even in tv reality shows. There have been many threats of lawsuits between US networks over what they call too close copying. I don’t think any of these have gotten to court, but I’m fairly sure that some shows have never made it to the air.

But the entertainment industry is in general a different beast than the print industry, and it is next to impossible to make direct comparisons of law or practice. For example, the Writers Guild of America - West, basically the screenwriters union, does indeed have an idea depository that members can place dated material into. This is for members only and is first subject to binding internal arbitration, so there is absolutely nothing like it in the print world. Perhaps this is where the very mistaken idea of sending yourself material comes from in urban legend form.

Reality shows are not “scripted” in this sense, so they are governed by different rules, but are still subject to basic copyright practices.

Thanks for the correction, Exapno Mapcase. I did my post from memory and a brief study of the subject. Interesting fact about the Guild of America. My information was based on a thesis on Dutch Law on formats; there has been at least one case taken to court and resulting in a judgement.

No, you cannot copyright an idea.

Copyright exists on the realisation or implementation of an idea, in the form of something which can be recognised as intellectual property, such as a book, a synopsis, a poem, a treatment etc. .

Copyright automatically exists on your own intellectual property whether you claim it or not, until such time as you sell or rescind that protection.

It is possible for someone else to have the same idea as you, and to produce a piece of intellectual property which has many similarities. If either party wants to sue the other, it will be down to the courts to decide if anyone did anything wrong. It is one thing to suspect or feel or believe that someone copied your work, and quite another to prove it in a court of law.

To give a specific example of how an “idea” is protected:

Art Buchwald came up with the general notion that was eventually turned into the movie Coming to America. At its earliest stages, it wasn’t much more than a fish-out-of-water price-and-the-pauper sort of thing, and is therefore vague enough that any claim of infringement on his part at that point would have been laughed out of court.

So he wrote a treatment. As I recall, it was around twenty pages long, though my memory is hazy. In this treatment, Buchwald fleshes out the characters, the details of the situation, and the flow of the plot, in order to make it a specific story as opposed to a vaguely ill-defined notion. At this point, it goes from an idea, which cannot be copyrighted, to actual material, which can.

And it’s a good thing, too, because Buchwald gave his treatment to Paramount, and sued them a few years later when his material was used as the basis of the Eddie Murphy movie. If Buchwald had offered the studio only an oral pitch based on the vague idea, he would have been out of luck, no matter how much noise he made or how many story details he may have had in his head. But with the written version serving as an actual documented expression of the idea, he was able to prevail in court.

Read Pierce O’Donnell’s book Fatal Subtraction if you want the full story.

yolady: ideas seem to float around the cosmos

A good example of how this might be so (and how difficult it is to trace origins and sue for plot similarity): the situation surrounding Groundhog Day, where two earlier writers, Leon Arden and Richard Lupoff, alleged independently that their storylines had been plagiarized. There’s a fuller write-up on my weblog here.