What does copywrite cover?

I see from the local paper today that the authors of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail are suing the author of the Da Vinci Code for copying ideas and structure from their book. Is that likely to work? Can I take someones book and rewrite it, changing names etc but keeping the plot the same?

from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2057713,00.html

Copyright — the right to copy.

er thanks Walloon for stating the obvious and also indirectly pointing out that I cant spell copyright. Any one with more useful information?

It protects expressions, but not ideas.


Ahhhh. The article is about UK copyright law. Apparently, the idea/expression distinction exists there too. http://austlii.edu.au/itlaw/articles/ALJ_Autodesk.html; http://www.kaltons.co.uk/articles/115-1.cfm

But apparently the distinction is not applied as rigorously as it is in the US:


In the U.S. the answer to the OP is a resounding “it depends.”

Ideas are not copyrightable, but merely changing “names etc.” would never fly, unless doing so made it an obvious parody of the original work. And so on.

The modern fantasy novel industry relies heavily on rewriting the same basic text over and over, with minor variations of theme, character, and plot. This is completely legal.

You’d have to extract huge amounts of an original to make it a copyright offense, but where the line is drawn depends entirely on the individual circumstances. No set rules exist.

Generally, you can’t copyright an idea, and that House of Lords case is opening a very ugly can of worms.

In general, though, the ideas and plot of a book can be reused without fear of infringement For instance, if you wrote a book about a young, talented wizard who wears glasses and who is unaware of how powerful he is and is educated by top wizards about how best to use his potential, you wouldn’t have to worry about being sued by Neil Gaiman.*

These suits happen often: someone claims their book was stolen by someone who wrote something similar (there was one about Finding Nemo, for instance). They usually go nowhere. This case, at least, can prove that Brown was aware of the book, but it doesn’t matter: authors reuse plot ideas all the time.

*Whose Books of Magic has a lot of the elements that Rowling used in Harry Potter. Neil is too nice to even consider suing, but he has stated that, just because there are some clear similarities, it’s not infringement.

See, Chapter 7 (cited above) for a discussion of substantial similarity with lots of examples.

thanks for the useful replies! I have a much clearer idea of whats involved now.

As this article from The Bookseller points out, there is a possible precedent in English law from the 1980 case in which Trevor Ravenscroft successfully sued James Herbert, which, oddly enough, centred around Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny, a book which notoriously surpasses even The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as pseudohistorical nonsense.

(But the forthcoming case really is one of those where you want both sides to lose.)

The few references to that case I’ve been able to dig up suggests that Herbert did “substantial” copying, a fact even admitted by his own publisher.

Dan Brown, OTOH, appears to be the victim of a nuisance suit generated by the huge amount of money he’s made*. I can’t believe for a second he will lose, even under English law. The Herbert suit does not appear to be a precedent since he took actual expression rather than just ideas.

  • Here’s another guy who can’t understand the difference between expression and ideas.