Idea-Expression Dichotomy


The idea-expression dichotomy can be referred to as the Fundamental axiom of copyright law. “Copyright does not protect ideas but only the expression of ideas”. More often the courts are faced with the dilemma of reconciling the interest of the public in access to new ideas with what at times is felt to be an injustice in permitting some to commercially exploiting the ideas of others.

The general issues usually revolve around questions of copyright ability of basic fact, plots, characters, and story elements etc. which comprise of non- literal copying. Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 grants copyright protection to original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, cinematograph films, and sound recordings. The courts have explained this doctrine through the following cases.

In the case of Baker v. Selden, the plaintiff was the owner of the copyright in a book that was about new form of doing accountancy and book keeping. The defendant had published a book that explained accountancy in that new form as explained in plaintiff’s book and hence, an issue of copyright infringement was raised.

The issue was whether the exclusive property in a system of book-keeping (particular forms, arrangements like ruled lines, headings, columns etc.) can be claimed under law of copyright by means of a book in which such a system in explained? The court held that the book here is only an explanation of the idea and only copying any particular explanation with respect to the way of writing would be covered by the domain of copyright infringement.

Explaining an idea does not give the plaintiff any exclusionary entitlement over the idea itself because copyright was never about owing the ideas but rather owning the expression of ideas. The court further added that the copyright of the book, if not pirated from other works would be valid without regards to novelty as the novelty of ideas is not something that falls under copyright protection. Here the Object of expression is explanation and the Object of idea is use.

In the case of R.G. Anand v Deluxe Films & ors[1], the issue was regarding the copyrightability of theme, story, and plot, etc. to which the court explained that it is not about literal copying and similarities of themes, story, characters, etc. can exist. The court laid down seven principles of the “reasonable observer test”.

Firstly, there can be no copyright in an idea, subject matter, themes, plots or historical or legendary facts and violation of the copyright in such cases is confined to the form, manner and arrangement and expression of the idea by the author of the copyright work.

Secondly, in order to be actionable the copy must be a substantial and material one which at once leads to the conclusion that the defendant is guilty of an act of piracy.

Thirdly, seeing the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both the works is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original. If the answer is in the positive, then it can be concluded that there is a copyright infringement.

Fourthly, where the theme is the same but is presented and treated differently so that the subsequent work becomes a completely new work, no question of violation of copyright arises.

Fifth, if there are also material and broad dissimilarities which negative the intention to copy the original and the coincidences appearing in the two works are clearly incidental no infringement of the copyright comes into existence.

Sixth, it must be proved by clear and cogent evidence after applying the various tests laid down by the case laws.

And Lastly, although unlike a stage play a film has a much broader prospective, a wider field and a bigger background where the defendants can by introducing a variety of incidents give a color and complexion different from the manner in which the copyrighted work has expressed the idea. But if the viewer gets a totality of impression that the film is by and large a copy of the original play, violation of the copyright may be said to be proved.


Hence, this doctrine makes it clear that copyright is about protecting the expressions of ideas and is not about creating a monopoly of ideas’ protection alone.

[1] (1978) 4 SCC 118

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