Home » What is the Idea-Expression Dichotomy In Copyright Law?

What is the Idea-Expression Dichotomy In Copyright Law?

Ideas, Expression, and Copyright

Can you copyright an idea, and if not why not? And if yes, what kind of ideas can be copyrighted? People in creative fields may have wondered about this at some point or another, because ideas are the lifeblood of the careers.

Copyright is essentially protection given to works of expression created by an author. The process of ideas being copyrighted is virtually non-existent. This is primarily because two or more people can have the same idea, but the expression of that idea may be unique. For example, the concept of a detective who uses deductive reasoning may have been pioneered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the Sherlock Holmes stories. However, countless other authors have used that idea as a template, creating other famous detective characters who use similar methods in a variety of media adaptations, such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe, and even Batman in many of his more noir-inspired variations.

one lit lightbulb in a row of dark bulbs

What this means is that creating the possibility of ideas getting IP protection will adversely affect creativity. It may lead to ideas being stockpiled by those who have no intention of putting their unique spin of expression on them. This in turn would deprive the world of several notable works of art and literature.  

However, this important concept is not in fact enshrined in any statute. Due to the lack of a guiding statute, the idea expression dichotomy relies on several cases as precedent.

The Judiciary on the Idea Expression Dichotomy

One of the major cases that helped with the understanding around the concept is that of RG Anand v. Deluxe Films. The case brought a suit of copyright infringement against a movie named New Delhimade by Mohan Sehgal.

The plaintiff R.G, Anand was of the belief that the movie was copied from the plot of a play Hum Hindustani, written and produced by the plaintiff. To give a backdrop of the case, it was in 1954 that the defendant Mohan Sehgal sent a letter to the plaintiff to ask for the rights as he wanted to make a movie on it. While there was a discussion regarding the story, no contract was entered into for the play. However, despite this, the movie was later widely released. The claim was that the movie is an adaption under Section 2 (a) of the Copyright Act, 1957. Section 2(a) states that “adaptation” means—

(i) in relation to a dramatic work, the conversion of the work into a non-dramatic work;

(ii) in relation to a literary work or an artistic work, the conversion of the work into a dramatic work by way of performance in public or otherwise;

(iii) in relation to a literary or dramatic work, any abridgement of the work or any version of the work in which the story or action in conveyed wholly or mainly by means of pictures in a form suitable for reproduction in a book, or in a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical;

The movie’s plot basically revolved around Madrasi and Punjabi Family neighbors who have a cordial relationship which gets strained as their kids want to marry each other.  Inter community marriage is dissented by both sides and both families approach a person to get their kids married. Both the kids privy to this information plan to run away whilst leaving a suicide note. Upon the discovery of the note, both of their parents feel saddened.

The movie’s plot was similar to the plot of the play, in being about two people of different backgrounds falling in love. However, many other elements were different.

The court stated the following regarding the case, that the copyright cannot be given on an idea in any case and a test needs to be undertaken to assess the claims by the plaintiff here. The test shall entail a review from a test audience who have watched both the pieces of world and upon watching has felt that the subsequent work is copied from the original. The plot can be similar and yet would not amount to infringement if the presentation is varied.

The court ruled in favour of the defendant, stating that upon a parametric assessment of the situation using the pointers mentioned above, one cannot say that the move is a blatant copy of the play and is in violation of the copyright. The court also highlighted that a few portrayals or expressions are global in nature and copyrighting would mean stifling the freedom of expression.

Author: Apurva Kumar Das, Legal Intern at PA Legal.

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