The Requirements for Copyright Protection-JA

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In all countries, there are two requirements for copyright protection: originality and protectable "expression." In a few countries, there is also a third requirement: that the "work" for which an author seeks protection have been "fixed" in a tangible medium of expression.

Casestudy.png Case Study

US law expressly provides that choreographic works are copyrightable; Jamaican law does not.

Can a "choreographed" sports play be protected under US copyright law? consider the "flea flicker": video 1 and video 2. See also play diagram.

Should a sports play be protected by US copyright? What about Jamaican copyright law?

The Concept of Originality

Neither the Berne Convention nor the TRIPS Agreement expressly requires originality for a work to be protected by copyright. However, almost all countries require some level of originality for a work to qualify for copyright protection. Unfortunately, there is no standard international minimum of originality. Each country independently sets the originality standard that a work must meet. In some countries, such as the United States and Canada, originality requires only "independent conception" and a "bare minimum" of creativity. In other countries, such as France, Spain and developing countries influenced by the civil-law tradition, originality is defined as the “imprint of the author’s personality” on the work.

In most countries, the work of authorship need not be novel, ingenious, or have aesthetic merit in order to satisfy the originality requirement. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court in Feist Pulbications v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991), defined originality as requiring only that the work be independently created by the author and that it possess “at least some minimal degree of creativity.” According to the Court, the “requisite level of creativity is extremely low” and a work need only “possess some creative spark no matter how crude, humble or obvious it might be.”

The Exclusion of Ideas from Copyright Protection

Copyright law does not protect ideas or facts. Instead, copyright law only protects the expression of those ideas or facts. The U.S. copyright statute is a typical example. It reads: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.” (17 U.S.C. Section 102(b)). The Jamaican Copyright Act contains similar language: "Copyright protection does not extend to an idea, concept, process, principle, procedure, system or discovery or things of a similar nature." (The Copyright Act, Section 6(8)).

The same principle can be found in the major copyright treaties. The Berne Convention, for example, states that protection “shall not apply to news of the day or to miscellaneous facts having the character of mere items of press information.” Both the TRIPS Agreement and the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) state that, while expressions are copyrightable, “ideas, procedures, methods of operation or mathematical concepts as such” are not.

Excluding facts and ideas from protection helps to promote the public interest in freedom of speech. Extending copyright protection to ideas or facts would inhibit public debate by allowing copyright holders to control uses of the concepts or information contained in their works. Both political freedom and the progress of knowledge would suffer. In addition, excluding facts and the fundamental building blocks of information (such as the "news of the day") from protection ensures that the basic processes of cultural production are not impaired.

On occasion, an idea and its expression may become indistinguishable. If there is only one way of expressing a particular idea, the idea and the expression of that idea are said to “merge.” The merger doctrine in copyright law was developed to deal with such cases, removing from the scope of copyright protection those expressions that constitute the only way of communicating an idea. What about situations in which an idea can only be expressed in a limited number of ways? The courts in some countries deal with such situations by granting limited or “thin” copyright protection to those expressions -- in other words, prohibiting only verbatim or virtually identical copying.


The Berne Convention allows member countries to decide whether creative works must be “fixed” to enjoy copyright. Article 2, Section 2 of the Berne Convention states:

“It shall be a matter for legislation in the countries of the Union to prescribe that works in general or any specified categories of works shall not be protected unless they have been fixed in some material form.”

Most countries do not require that a work be produced in a particular form to obtain copyright protection. For instance, Spain, France, and Australia do not require fixation for copyright protection. The United States and Canada, on the other hand, require that the work be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” to obtain copyright protection. U.S. law requires that the fixation be stable and permanent enough to be “perceived, reproduced or communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.” Similarly, Canadian courts consider fixation to require that the work be “expressed to some extent at least in some material form, capable of identification and having a more or less permanent endurance.” The Jamaican Copyright Act states that "[a] literary, dramatic or musical work shall not be eligible for copyright protection unless it is recorded in writing or otherwise...." but is silent as to any fixation requirement for other kinds of creative works. (The Copyright Act, Section 6(2)).

The definition of “fixation” in the United States excludes “purely evanescent or transient reproductions such as those projected briefly on a screen, shown electronically on a television or other cathode ray tube, or captured momentarily in the ‘memory’ of a computer.” Many courts, including those in the United States, have deemed computer programs fixed when stored on a silicon chip. The audiovisual effects of computer games are commonly considered to be fixed because their repetitiveness makes them “sufficiently permanent and stable.”

The requirement of fixation may become problematic when applied to live performances. For instance, U.S. law specifies that a work must be fixed “by or under the authority of the author.” This law produces some surprising results. If a choreographer hires someone to videotape a performance, the choreography of that performance will be protected by copyright. But if copies of a live performance are recorded and distributed without the permission of the choreographer, the choreography would not receive copyright protection because that performance was not fixed under her authority. Countries that grant copyright for works regardless of fixation do not have similar problems.

The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires all members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to protect live musical performances. This means that even countries with fixation requirements must enact statutes to ensure the protection of musical performances without fixation. The United States, for instance, enacted a special provision prohibiting the “fixation or transmission of a live musical performance without the consent of the performers, and prohibiting the reproduction of copies or phonorecords of an unauthorized fixation of a live musical performance.” Notice, however, that this provision is limited to “musical” performances and does not apply to other types of performances.

Owning a Copy vs. Owning a Copyright

Ownership of a physical copy of a work is separate from copyright ownership in the work. Just because you own a copy of a book doesn’t mean you are free to copy it. The Jamaican Copyright Act states: "Copyright shall not subsist in a sound recording or film which is, or to the extent that it is, a copy taken from a previous sound recording or film." (The Copyright Act, Section 6(4)).

Ordinarily, when the creator of a work sells or transfers a copy of it to another person, she does not surrender her copyright unless she expressly agrees to do so. So, for example, the writer of a letter or an email message retains the copyright in the letter even after he has sent it to the recipient.

Even though the owner of a physical copy of a copyrighted work may not be entitled to copy it without permission, he or she is usually free to sell or rent it to other people. The rule that creates this privilege is known as the "first sale" doctrine. As we will see, it is subject to certain exceptions involving commercial rental of some types of material.

For the most part, the lawful owner of a copy of a copyrighted work is also free to destroy or mutilate it. However, some treaties and national legal systems recognize “moral rights” that set limits on the freedom of the owner to act in these ways. The Berne Convention, for example, specifies that: "Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation." Jamaica's Copyright Act recognizes the right of the author of a work to be identified as such, and, subject to some exceptions, prohibits distortion or mutilation of a work. (The Copyright Act, Sections 36(1), 37).

Additional Resources

A good discussion of the concept of originality in copyright law, juxtaposing the versions of the concept used in the US and in the EU, can be found in Software Freedom Law Center, Originality Requirements under U.S. and E.U. Copyright Law

The following judicial opinions explore and apply some of the principles discussed above:

Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) (originality) back to Jamaica Main Page