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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    peter (profile), 2 Jul 2009 @ 8:25pm

    Coward - Could these things be said about "any law"? -- We are not a society oriented only toward property ownership. Free expression, based primarily in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is also foundational to our society. It is exposure to ideas, and not to their particular expression, that is vital if self-governing people are to make informed decisions. There is, however, an inherent tension here. While the First Amendment disallows laws that abridge the freedom of speech, the Copyright Clause calls specifically for such a law. The First Amendment gets government off speakers’ backs, while the Copyright Act enables speakers to make money from speaking and thus encourages them to enter the public marketplace of ideas. Balancing this conflict is precisely the purpose of the fair use doctrine, as recognized in In SunTrust Bank v Houghton Mifflin Co., 268 F.3d 1257, 60 U.S.P.Q. 2d 1225, 14 F.L.W. Fed. C, 1391 (2001, 11th Cir.), rehearing denied en ban, 275 F3d 58 (11th Cir. 2001). In Sun Trust, the owners of the copyright to Gone With the Wind sued the publisher that owned the rights to The Wind Done Gone, a critique of the depiction of slavery and the Civil-War era American South and that used and drew upon the characters and story line from Gone with the Wind. The court ordered the lawsuit dismissed because The Wind Done Gone’s use of the characters and story line from Gone with the Wind constituted fair use. In doing so, the court made clear that “First Amendment privileges are . . . preserved through the doctrine of fair use” and that to hold otherwise would jeopardize “over 200 years” of the constitutional “guarantee that new ideas, or new expressions of old ideas, would be accessible to the public.”

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