I chuckled to myself when I read about the copyright infringement claim a cookbook author brought against Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica Seinfeld, for writing a cookbook about how to get kids to eat vegetables by hiding them in foods they actually like to eat. Apparently, the plaintiff had written the same type of cookbook.
The two books were published only five months apart. They both contained a forward written by a doctor and the both provide directions for making vegetable purees that can later be used in healthy recipes.
The two books shared a similar theme, but themes are not subject to copyright protection. If they were, all those boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-again stories would be in big trouble.
Copyright protects the form of expression – not the expression or idea itself. It’s a significant difference. Ideas and concepts get protected another way. They can be protected by patents. So if the cookbook had identified a specific method for preparing pureed vegetables such a method might be subject to protection if it had met all of the legal requirements for a patent and a patent had been applied for and issued. (That’s a lot of ifs.)
But the Seinfeld case wasn’t about patents, it was about copyright and the court found no copyright violation.
Another interesting development in the news involving copyright involves certain comic book superheroes. The NY Times reported earlier this week that the heirs of the late comic book artist Jack Kirby, the creator of the famous Marvel characters (The Hulk, X-Men, and Fantastic Four), are seeking to reclaim control of certain copyrights. The heirs’ fight also extends to certain movie studios who acquired certain rights to bring the superhero characters to the big screen.
This latest development illustrates an often overlooked aspect of copyright – the fact that copyright is not a single right, but rather a bundle of rights. It’s a set of “rights” that can be sliced and diced in a number of ways.
Think about that the next time your business creates a report, a program, or any other documented form of expression. Once you create it, you own it and you get to decide who gets to use it and how. You can decide to sell it or give it away in its entirety, or you can give those rights away in a limited form.
Knowing your copyright rights is a valuable form of asset protection.