Date: 11 January, 2020
by Upamanyu Ganguly, ILS Law College, Pune
Idea-expression dichotomy is a method used in Copyright law, where the method is used in order to differentiate between an idea and the way the idea is expressed.
The general notion in copyrights is that an idea cannot be protected under copyright laws, but the way in which the said idea is expressed (books, movies, plays) can be protected by a copyright.
For example, if an author writes a book, he can only get the way he writes in the book, the characters, any artwork copyrighted, but not the idea behind that story.
In India, no legislation recognises this distinction, and the method itself is based on judgements laid down by the courts of law, but the principle is very much in use.
ORIGINS OF THE MEHTOD
The Idea-expression dichotomy originates from the United States Supreme Court case of Baker v. Selden, where the court basically held that the practical or the useful idea that is presented in a book can be patented, however, the format of presenting the same idea cannot be patented and this presentation and description of the idea can only be copyrighted.
The purpose of this distinction between an idea and an expression is to allow the free communication of the facts presented in the work, while protecting the author’s mode of presenting the facts, that is, the way he expresses it.
In the English case, Donoghue v. Allied Newspaper Ltd., the court stated that if the person has clothed the idea in any form, by means of picture, play or book, then in such a case only the form in which the idea is clothed is copyrightable.
CASE LAWS IN INDIA
As mentioned earlier, Indian legislation does not recognise the idea expression dichotomy, however, the principle itself is used by the courts in India.
In the case of RG Anand V. Deluxe Films (1978 AIR 1613), the plaintiff had written a play titled Hum Hindustani, for which the defendants wrote a letter expressing their desire to create a movie based on the play. The plaintiff and the defendant discussed the play and no commitments were made. Later, the plaintiff believed that the movie titled New Delhi was based on his play, and filed a suit against the defendants. The Supreme Court held that the movie does not amount to an infringement of a copyright, even though both the movie and the play were based on similar ideas, the way the idea was expressed was vastly different from each other, and ruled against the plaintiff.
The High Court of Bombay used the idea-expression dichotomy in the case of Mansoob Haider V. Yashraj Films (Suit No. 219 of 2014), stating that an idea cannot be copyrighted, and any residue left behind after filtering out the dissimilarities, or any similarities in idea is not copyrightable.
In the case of Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford v. Narendra Publishing House and Ors (2008 (38) PTC 385 (Del) )., the Delhi High Court decided that publishing a guidebook that independently solved the questions of a textbook does not amount to an infringement of copyright, as the idea is similar, but the content is not so.
The idea-expression comes into play in order to basically protect the author’s medium of expressing an idea, while allowing the free flow of the ideas themselves.
Another interesting but broader doctrine is that of the merger doctrine, which comes into play when an idea can only be expressed effectively in limited forms, such as rules, and in such cases the expression is also not copyrightable.
It goes without saying that if copyright was so strict as to punish people for using an idea, then that defeats the purpose of free communication in a laissez-faire world.