RELEVANCE OF IDEA-EXPRESSION DICHOTOMY UNDER COPYRIGHT LAW
Author:Priyanshi Sodani, IV year of B.A.,LL.B. (Hons.), from K.P.Mehta, School of Law, NMIMS (Deemed to be University).
One of the most established concepts in copyright law is the idea-expression dichotomy. It largely reiterates the fundamental idea of what specifically can be protected by copyright laws. This doctrine gains significance since it is essential to determine what constitutes original creative deserving of being protected by the law. An idea is the articulation of thought on a specific matter, whereas an expression is the actualization of the same idea using a particular, specific arrangement of words, designs, or other forms. Even though multiple people may independently come up with the same idea, they can only claim copyright for the method through which this idea has been expressed. As a result, this doctrine permits different ways of expressing the same idea. This article focuses on understanding the concept of idea-expression dichotomy using relevant legal precedents. It dives deeply into this concept and examines the several benchmarks and tests that Indian courts have established for differentiating ideas from expressions. It further deals with the distinction between idea and expression that still exists in copyright law and how it is applied in cases Indian judiciary. It also focuses on analyzing the applicability of this principle vis-à-vis infringement of copyright laws.
Key words : Copyright, Dichotomy, Expression, Idea, Infringement.
The “Idea- Expression Dichotomy” is the fundamental concept underlying copyright law. It comprises the disadvantages of functional claims over works protected by copyright. More specifically, it suggests that no matter how original the ideas may be, copyright protection may only be given on the original expression of such ideas.
The idea-expression dichotomy was developed to protect ideas in their tangible forms, i.e., their expressions, rather than just the ideas themselves. This philosophy has its roots in United States, yet as a theoretical idea, Indian jurisprudence is not completely unknown to it. For the first time, the theory received acknowledgment from the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Baker v. Selden. This theory permits different expressions of the same idea to be available, and courts consider it as the ideal instrument for deciding copyright infringement cases.
The idea-expression dichotomy states that while ideas themselves are not covered by copyright laws, their expressions are. In light of this, copyright laws might not apply to an idea that has not been transformed into an unique, precise arrangement of words, graphics, or other forms. Article 9(2) of the “Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights”, also upholds this enduring principle of copyright law. It states that “Copyright protection shall extend to expressions and not to ideas, procedures, methods of operation or mathematical concepts as such.”
Meaning of “Idea”
Ideas are discussed, contested, and explored through as human mental formulations, representations, or depictions. Along with difficulty in defining the term, there is ambiguity about what ideas imply in the context of copyright. In general, an idea is a mental representation or a thought that arises from mental awareness, understanding, or activity. While discussing intellectual property, it is crucial to define the term “idea.” Some experts believe that the best way to define intellectual property would be to categorize it as nonphysical property, whose value is derived from an idea. Traditionally, the term “idea” can refer to a wide range of things, beginning with ordinary everyday ideas. But the second idea, which forms a part of any creative process and usually reflect the author’s personality in a work, becomes typically significant in terms of copyright law. It might be referred to as “operations of the author’s mind” in context of copyright. In addition to this interpretation, it is also acceptable to refer to ideas as external objects, which denotes anything that was drawn by the user rather than the author and was not necessarily implied by the author.
Meaning of “Expression”
The word “expression” is in itself self-explanatory. In general, it is defined as “the act or instance of expressing or setting forth in words, a specific word, phrase, or form of words, or the manner or form in which a thing is expressed in words; wording; phrasing; or as the way an idea is transformed into words.”
The concept of expression has evolved in the modern day to encompass not only spoken words, to which this dissertation can be applied, but also music, paintings, novels, films, and other works that are covered by copyright. Hence, an expression typically conveys some form of idea.
The term “expression” is not specifically defined in Indian law, although it is typically derived from sections dealing with copyright law, which state that works must be expressed by way, similar to that described in Section 13 of Copyright Act of 1976.
What is the relevance of ‘idea-expression dichotomy’ under Indian copyright regime ?
What approach does the Indian Courts use in order to differentiate between ‘idea’ and ‘expression’ ?
How does Indian Courts apply this doctrine of ‘idea-expression’ in cases involving infringement of rights ?
Decoupling Idea-Expression under Copyright Domain
The idea-expression dichotomy makes it extremely difficult to distinguish between the two. Due to the lack of a statutory provision, it becomes necessary to rely on the case laws that make an attempt to draw a distinction between the two. In Indian context, landmark judgment of R.G. Anand v. Deluxe Film established a seven-pointer test to distinguish between the two, which can be understood as follows;
No copyright in an idea, subject matter, themes, narratives, or historical or legendary facts, and copyright infringement is limited to the creator of the copyright work’s form, method, arrangement, and presentation of the idea.
Where the same concept is developed differently, it is obvious that because the source is shared, parallels are sure to appear. In such situation, courts must decide whether the similarities are on basic or significant parts of the style of expression used in the copyrighted work.
To see if the reader, spectator, or viewer is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original after having read or seen both works.
No concern of copyright violation if the concept is same but is presented and treated differently such that the succeeding work becomes an entirely new work.
Apart from the similarities appearing in the two works, there are also significant and wide dissimilarities that negate the intention to duplicate the original and the coincidences appearing in the two works are manifestly accidental, no copyright infringement occurs.
A breach of copyright constitutes must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
When the issue is an infringement of a stage play’s copyright by a film producer or director, if the audience leaves the film with the idea that it is mostly a replica of the original play, only then an infringement of the copyright may be deemed proven. Because it is obvious that a film has a much broader perspective, and a larger background distinct from the method in which the original work has represented the idea or script.
In this case, the defendant wanted to make a movie based on the story of a play authored by the plaintiff, and discussed the idea with the plaintiff. Though there were no commitments between them regarding the movie, the released a movie based on that play. The plaintiff sued the defendant for permanent injunction and damages. The Supreme Court held in favor of the defendant that the movie cannot be considered as an infringement of the story of the play. The reason behind this was that, though the idea was similar in both, the movie and the play, but the manner in which they both were expressed was vastly different from one another. Hence, it cannot be held as an infringement of copyright.
The High Court of Bombay reaffirmed in the case of Mansoob Haider v. Yashraj Films case that ideas are not protected by copyrights. After eliminating the differences, ideas that are similar but not identical are what remain, and similar ideas do not constitute a violation of intellectual property rights.
Idea-Expression Dichotomy vis-à-vis Copyright Protection
In accordance with Indian law, copyright laws safeguard ‘expression of ideas’ rather than ideas in their original forms. Works or creations which can be copyrighted and rights of the copyright owner have been covered by the Copyright Act of 1957. So, the only illegal duplication of an artistic work that violates its copyright is one done without the consent of the party who holds the copyright.
The Act goes into great detail on what constitutes a copyright violation. Despite the seeming thoroughness of the Act, it lacks definitions of ideas, expressions, and any distinctions between the two. Additionally, there is absence of case laws that addresses the idea-expression duality. The major justification for protecting expressions rather than ideas is to safeguard the free exchange of ideas, which are too valuable to be protected by copyright. The copyrighting of ideas would hinder innovation and creativity. Because of this very reason, copyright rules are designed with the flexibility to borrow ideas or be inspired by them at their core.
When determining whether or not a work is copied without permission, the idea-expression duality is important to consider. The U.K. House of Lords judgement in Designers Guild Ltd v. Russell Williams (Textiles) Ltd. underlined that the less concrete and complex the copied idea is, the less likely it is to make up a significant portion in cases of artistic copyright. In this case, the plaintiff’s employee came up with a unique pattern for dress fabric. The defendant, after having seen the plaintiff’s fabric, created a very similar pattern for its own fabric and claimed that it had just copied the “idea” simply and not the “expression” of the plaintiff’s fabric.
The judge determined that there was infringement because Defendant’s design included a significant portion of Plaintiff’s design. In addition, courts all over India have ruled that copyright does not apply to style, news, historical happenings or facts, scientific concepts or descriptions of art, simple principles or schemes, operating procedures, and generic ideas, such as those used for amusement. This helps us comprehend what constitutes ideas that are not covered by copyright rules.
Idea-Expression Dichotomy in Indian Jurisdiction
The Copyright Act, 1957 governs copyright law in India. The Act is comprehensive, and Section 13 of the Act defines the extent of copyright existence by identifying the works in which copyright exists. The definition of copyright in relation to literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works is provided in Section 14(a), which also outlines the exclusive rights granted to the author of the work. The Act provides a thorough explanation of copyrighted work assignments and licencing. The Act also covers infringement issues in great detail under Section 51 as well as infringement exceptions under Section 52.
Despite its thoroughness, the Copyright Act does not define an idea or an expression or describe how the two are distinguished. Therefore, the development of the principle of idea-expression dichotomy in India has to be understood from the judicial angle. After the Supreme Court judgment of R.G. Anand v. Deluxe Films, the seven-point test of was applied by Kerala High Court in case of R. Madhavan v. S.K. Nair. The court determined that there was no visible similarity between the scenes, concept, or situation of the novel and the movie. The actual incidents and situations depicted in the movie differed significantly and materially from that in the plaintiff’s novel.
In 2002 again, it was Delhi High Court to address this issue in Anil Gupta v. Kunal Dasgupta. The plaintiff approached the defendant about airing his idea for a reality television show about matchmaking. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant had stolen his idea and implemented it, and hence, violation of his copyright. The defendant asserted that only the expression of an idea could be protected by copyright, and not the idea itself. The Court concluded that although an idea cannot be protected by a copyright, but a concept that is the subject of any dispute and is a novel concept can be copyrighted even though it is only an idea.
In another case of Book Company and Ors. v. D.B. Modak in 2008, the Supreme Court introduced judgement reporting as a new dimension to the idea-expression dichotomy. The court ruled that the Copyright Act only addresses the expression of ideas, not the originality of those ideas. The Court decided that the judgements of the Court are in public domain, and thus no copyright can be asserted on them, on the question of whether copy-edited judgements were entitled to copyright protection.
The idea-expression dichotomy has been extensively discussed by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court too, in the case of Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford vs. Narendra Publishing House and Ors., wherein the Court concluded that publishing of a guidebook which contained independently solved solutions to problems from plaintiff’s textbook cannot be said to be an infringement of copyright.
The essential feature of copyright laws is encompassed by the principles of idea and expression. It’s really important to be able to tell them apart correctly. Since the latter is a better indicator of a person’s originality, numerous judgements have demonstrated that ideas and their expression are distinct from one another.
Idea-Expression Dichotomy supports creativity and guards against monopolies in the creative industry. It permits expressions that represent various viewpoints on related ideas. Ideas may be protected under the law of confidence even though they are not protected by the copyrights law. Therefore, copying ideas might be considered a breach of confidentiality. The very nature of creative activity is that it is never constrained by set rules. Therefore, despite the fact that the idea-expression dichotomy theory is quite ambiguous, it is true that the courts will never be able to set definitive, explicit standards.
The Copyrights Act, 1957
Elizabeth Verkey & Jithin Saji Issac, Intellectual Property, Eastern Book Store, 2nd Ed., 2021.
Dr. M.K. Bhandari, Law relating to Intellectual Property Rights, Central Law Publications, 2017.
Chatterjee, Dipanwita, “Know What Is the Concept of Idea-Expression Dichotomy !!” Kanoon Gurus, June 2021.
Senthil Kumar, “India : Idea-Expression Dichotomy Under Copyright Law”, Mondaq.com, Oct. 2016,
“The principle of idea-expression dichotomy : a comparative study of US, UK & Indian Jurisdictions”, SSRN.com.
Ritika Mandal and Souvik Dhar, “The Doctrine of Idea – Expression Dichotomy in India: An Insight on Protection of Unexpressed Ideas in Literary Works” LawBhoomi, Sept. 2022.
Poorvika Chandanam, “The Concept of Idea-Expression Dichotomy Under Copyright Law”, IP Matters, Oct. 2021.
Souravi Das, “The Relevance of Idea-Expression Dichotomy Under Copyright Law in the Context of Computer Programs” IP and Legal Filings, Oct. 2022.
Adarsh Ramanujan, Prateek Bhattacharya, Esheeta Gupta, “ Idea Expression Dichotomy in Copyright Law”
Ansruta Debnath, “Legal Analysis of Theory of Idea-expression Dichotomy”, iPleaders, Dec. 2021.