December 6, 2017

Copyright Does Not Protect Ideas, Only Expression

By Bryan K. Wheelock, Principal

On December 6, 2107, Judge Louis Stanton dismissed Randy Brown’s copyright law suit against Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting, Cartoon Network and others, based upon the claim that the television series Black Jesus infringed his short story Thank You Jesus.

Judge Stanton’s opinion concisely stated what every copyright owner needs to remember:

It is a principle fundamental to copyright law that a copyright does not protect an idea, but only the expression of the idea.

Judge Stanton found that there are “no similarities between the two works beyond the abstract and unprotected idea of an African American male protagonist named Jesus who believes that he is the Son of God.”  Reviewing the plot, characters, setting, themes, total concept and feel, he concluded that the concept of an African American Jesus who engages in allegedly “un-Jesuslike” conduct is an abstract idea, which is illustrated and expressed differently by entirely different stories in each work.  Judge Stanton found that no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could finding that the expressions of Thank You Jesus are substantially related to Black Jesus.

While the law does provided limited protection for ideas under certain circumstances, copyright does not.  Merely because a second work is based upon the same idea as a first work does not mean it infringes the copyright in the first work.