Is There Really An Idea/Expression Dichotomy In Copyright?

from the it's-difficult-to-see dept

Copyright system defenders often trot out the commonly accepted wisdom that copyright does not protect "ideas" and that there's an important "idea/expression" dichotomy, where it's only the specific expression that's protected, not the ideas. However, the reality is that both individuals and courts seem to have a pretty difficult time distinguishing between the two, and always have. While perhaps there's some platonic ideal where it's easy to tell the difference between an idea and the expression of that idea, it's much harder in practice. Recent studies have shown how notoriously difficult this distinction is in practice, leading to serious questions about how copyright violates the First Amendment.

The latest example of this is the ruling banning the publication of the "modern" sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. If there really were a distinction between the idea and the expression, then a sequel would never be seen as infringing, unless it used significant text directly from the original. Yet, in this case, the ban on publication is making some wonder where that mythical idea/expression dichotomy really exists:
First, it exposes the lie that is perpetuated in the legal community that copyright laws don't protect "ideas", but rather only the "concrete expression" of ideas. In practicality, this statement is pure nonsense as evidenced by the fact that a copyrighted work seals in monopoly protections of "characters" and "derivative works" - even if such derivative works don't include any actual "copying" of cloned material from the underlying work.

For instance, if I feel that I have a far better script or storyline that utilizes the character of James Bond, but without utilizing any previous cloned image from a Bond film and without copying previously used dialogue beyond a minimal instance of "My name is Bond...James Bond." or "Shaken...not stirred.", I still would not be able to create it, because Ian Flemming's estate and/or Sony Pictures, etc. has a monopoly over the IDEA of James Bond.

I would argue that by protecting "derivative" works, copyright effectively asserts control over ideas - except for those envisioned at the most abstract levels.
I'm sure we'll get angry comments from some of the copyright defenders who are always quick to chide, but I'm curious how they can use the so-called idea/expression dichotomy as a defense against a First Amendment violation, when that dichotomy doesn't really seem to exist. Copyright system defenders, for years, have relied on the whole "idea/expression" split to explain away how copyright law can be compatible with the First Amendment's insistence that "no law" may be passed that inhibits freedom of speech. If you realize that said split doesn't really exist (or, at the very least, is not enforced by the courts), you have a big, big constitutional problem.

Filed Under: catcher in the rye, copyright, expression, first amendment, idea, jd salinger


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  1. identicon
    ASH, 5 Jul 2009 @ 10:06pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "The question was how do you explain away the conflict between the 1st Amendment and copyright law in cases like this, where the idea/expression dichotomy doesn't seem to exist?"

    Well, OK, great...except that's NOT what you said. What you did say was that the dichotomy was "mythical" and that it "doesn't really exist". Now you're saying that "in cases like this" (which one?) it "doesn't SEEM to exist"--which is such a different question that if you can't tell them apart, the idea/expression dichotomy is the least of your problems.

    So, what happens in cases when (as you now articulate) the distinction doesn't seem to exist? Well, that's called the Doctrine of Merger, and it means that it's not copyright infringement. It's a concept basic to anyone who has even a passing understanding of copyright law; since this is apparently the first time you've heard of it, you can now look it up, and join the team.

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