There is no copyright in ideas

In March, the author Elizabeth Gilbert, most famous for writing Eat Pray Love, visited my hometown and I was lucky enough to see her speak at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Elizabeth’s talk was about creativity and ideas.

Elizabeth speaks about ideas as though they have a mind of their own; she emphasizes that the idea chooses the writer, not the other way around. She told a story to demonstrate her point:

Several years ago, after a long time searching for an idea for a fictional novel, Elizabeth came up with a brilliant one. She began plotting a story about a middle-aged lady in the midwest USA who is made to go down to the Amazon jungle in Brazil to search for the son of her boss, who has gone missing down there. However, before Elizabeth could write the novel, circumstances intervened. Life got very messy very fast when her now husband then Brazilian lover was deported from the United States. That story is the subject of Elizabeth’s book, CommittedNeedless to say, the fictional novel got put on the back-burner. And when life calmed down again and Liz tried to return to her novel, she found that the idea was gone. Or more accurately, the essence of something magnificent that had excited her and pulled her forth into writing the story was now missing. It had left her while she was busy doing other things. She never finished the novel.

Fast-forward to another day. Elizabeth is having coffee with her writer friend, Ann Patchett. Ann tells Liz excitedly about a new book she is working on – it is about a middle-aged lady from the midwest USA who is forced to go down to the Amazon jungle in Brazil to investigate the death of her colleague down there. As Elizabeth described it, the similarities between the two stories were uncanny and well beyond generalities or coincidences.

Elizabeth’s theory is this: ideas do not belong to us. They come to us to be expressed, and it is our job to express them. But if we don’t, if we dally too long, the idea will move on to someone else who will put it out in the world. It is not the idea’s fault – it just wants to be expressed. It is not the other person’s fault – they have not stolen the idea, they are just doing the idea’s will. This is what Liz believes happened with “her” idea – it got tired of waiting around for her, so it found Ann. Now the idea is expressed in Ann’s novel, State of Wonder.

Elizabeth touches more on these thoughts in her popular TED talk.

The Amazon, photo by Carla Arena, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

The Amazon, photo by Carla Arena, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

I started this post with that story because I think it aptly captures copyright’s attitude to ideas. One of the most important rules at the heart of copyright law is that copyright protects expression and not ideas. 

What this means is that copyright will protect the way in which Ann Patchett has expressed her story – the turns of phrase, the way she has ordered words to describe something – but it will not protect the idea of a story about a midwestern woman travelling to the Amazon jungle. If Elizabeth Gilbert really wanted to she could finish the story she started. The idea does not belong to Ann, or Liz, or anyone.

Some people get quite upset when they find out that they can’t protect their idea, or that there is not much they can do about that person who has “stolen” their idea. But when you think about it, this rule makes so much sense. Can you imagine if you could never write a story about star-crossed lovers because Shakespeare (or probably someone before him) got there first? Or about child wizards at a magic school because JK Rowling (or certainly someone before her) already did it? Or imagine if one person had control over the idea of taking a photo of someone doing yoga poses on the beach? It would be absurd.

Ideas are supposed to be free, to belong to everyone and no-one. Copyright law keeps it that way, by only protecting the very particular ways in which ideas are expressed.

Want more? Here’s Seth Godin on why he wants you to steal his ideas.

© Basics: Originality

To be protected by copyright, your content has to be original.

When copyright talks about originality, it doesn’t mean that what you create has to be completely new + novel. You don’t have to be Picasso or Mozart or Hemingway. We all know that creative works are iterative – we build on what has come before.

Originality - Mark TwainWhat copyright means when it talks about originality is that the content originates from YOU. You made it; it’s yours. You didn’t copy it from somebody else.

(This always reminds me of a school teacher lecturing students to “Keep your eyes on your own work!” and “Don’t copy the person sitting next to you!”). Copyright originality is a bit like that.

The general rule is that if you created the content, then it’s original.

What does this mean practically for bloggers? Most of us will draft the words in our blog posts ourselves, so those will be original. The same goes for photos we take ourselves. But for photos and images we source from other blogs, Pinterest or Google Image Search – no.

Even though this seems pretty simple, originality is one of the most complex parts of copyright law. This is because sometimes it’s difficult to say whether we have truly created something ourselves or not. For example, take the graphic above. I’ve taken a quote from Mark Twain and put it into a template I got from Reasonable minds could differ about whether this is original or not. Some might say that simply putting someone else’s words into someone else’s template does not produce an original work. Others might say that there is some originality involved in the selection and artistic arrangement of these elements. Unfortunately, we don’t have clear case law directly on this point so we don’t really know on which side the law would come down.

Don’t let this scare you, though. For most of the things that you do, you should be able to tell, through common sense, whether the work originated from you. It just helps to know that sometimes originality can be murky and open to debate.

Interested in learning more about originality, or more specifically, how nothing is truly original? I highly recommend this TEDx talk (11 mins) by Austin Kleon. See also the fifth golden rule of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch: Nothing is original.

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© Basics: Copyright is Automatic

It is not uncommon for me to hear bloggers wonder aloud about whether they should “copyright” their work. Maybe you’ve had this question yourself. How does a blogger go about copyrighting their work?

Well I’ve got good news for you: you don’t have to do a thing!

Copyright protection arises automatically upon creation of a work. Or more specifically, copyright is automatic where a work:

  • Is original;
  • Is substantial enough; and
  • Is in a material form.

Let’s break it down.

I’m going to address originality in a separate post, because it’s so interesting.

Substantial enough: There must be enough content for copyright protection to attach. This is a pretty simple requirement to satisfy – pictures, blog posts (or any slabs of text), podcasts and vlogs (video logs) are all substantial enough to be protected. Names and titles are generally not substantial enough to have copyright protection. That’s why it’s possible to have several books, movies (or blogs!) with the same name. Legal protection of names generally falls under the domain of trademark law or business names registration. Again, that is a post for another day.


Material form: This basically means that your content must be set down somewhere relatively permanent – written down, typed out, drawn, painted, recorded. It cannot exist only in your head and it cannot exist only in a transient form (like streaming an online discussion without also saving that stream somewhere). form. Photo by Lucent Imagery, used with permission.

Pretty straightforward, right? Almost all of the content you produce for your blog will attract copyright protection automatically (yay!)

But I thought you needed to include that little © symbol to have copyright protection?

Nope. But it’s good practice to include that symbol, your name and the year the work was created (e.g. © Kylie Pappalardo 2014) to provide people with the information they need to figure out whom to ask permission from if they’d like to use your work.