In most modern arenas it's easy to identify products - they exist as objects. You can slap a patent on objects - and often on the processes that make those objects.
But ideas are more nebulous. Artistic expression is perhaps harder to quantify - or so it would seem. Which is why copyright and the concept of 'intellectual property' is so important.
Contrary to what many people think, artists, writers and musicians have the law on their side.
Their intellectual property - their ideas and the expression of those ideas - are protected by law in most countries around the world. It is only those few countries - and individuals - that do not respect intellectual property that cause problems for the rest of us.
The Copyright Act was enshrined in 1968 to protect artists, writers and musicians from having their work stolen, copied and exploited by unscrupulous individuals and corporations.
The Copyright Act gives automatic ownership of an idea's expression to the expresser. Much confusion, though, still exists as to what that actually means...
Books and movies and CDs often flaunt the copyright symbol as though it's some kind of corporate badge that has little or no meaning.
But this is not the case.
Let's be clear. When a writer gets a publishing deal, she does not lose the copyright to the publisher. No, the copyright still belongs to the artist. The writer still owns the rights to her ideas and the expression of those idea in words.
The publisher only owns the rights to the book - the product.
It's exactly the same for musicians - who own copyright to the songs when the recording company merely owns the recording of those songs. Same with movies. A movie company's copyright only extends to the expression of a writer's screenplay, not to the screenplay itself.
I wish more people in the industry understood the subtleties implied in this arrangement.
Even artists - especially writers - rarely understand that you don't need to officially register copyright to own the expression of an idea.
Your copyright is innate - in law, automatically - the moment you commit your ideas to paper or to a computer file.
That doesn't mean you own the idea. No, you can't copyright an idea - only the expression of the idea in your own words.
Writers often ask me 'what happens if someone steals my idea?'
The bad news is there's not much you can do about that. Ideas are so commonplace - like the air that we breathe - it would be impossible to police who thought of what and when.
The real question is 'when does your idea become a copyrightable one?'
Simple, when it combines elements that are identifiably your own - and are expressed in such a way that it becomes clear that to copy that expression would be to mimic the personality of the expresser.
Sorry if that sounds like legalese! But if you can get your head around it, you'll understand some of the subtleties.
Let's think of an example.
Bram Stoker invented Dracula back in 1897, but that doesn't mean he owns the rights to all vampire stories ever written. The vampire is not a copyrightable idea. Which is why Stephenie Meyer - and a myriad other writers - are not infringing Bram Stoker's copyright by inventing their own vampires.
But if you tried to write another story about Count Dracula, now that would be different. You'd then have to deal with Bram Stoker's estate to ask their permission - which they have every right to refuse.
Ideas are one thing.
The problems start when publishers believe they own those ideas because they publish them. They don't.
Yes, they often own the rights to exploit those ideas - but that doesn't give them the right to misplace the author's name, sell books without paying the author or even sometimes assign the copyright to a third party. That's illegal, unethical and, let's face it, highly immoral.
Thankfully there aren't too many people around like that left, at least in the civilized world. And if there are, let's hope they'll be punished severely for their wrongdoings!
To an artist, copyright is a sacred commodity.
It is not merely a symbol tagged onto the start of an author's name.
It is a birthright. And respect for that birthright should be implicit in any relationship that the artist enters into.
If you ever feel that your own copyright is not being respected, then seek legal advice - or drop me a line. - or speak with one of the many writers and artists' associations that now, thankfully, are all around the world. There will be one close to you.
The law is on your side.
Of course there will always be those in business who will try to con artists - and abuse their power - in the same way as there will no doubt always be thieves, fraudsters and murderers.
It's up to we artists to remain vigilant and remind 'copyright exploiters', sometimes forcefully, that without ideas and their expression, there would be nothing for those businesses or individuals to exploit in the first place.
And then where would they be?
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”