What’s Not Protected: Copyright for Fiction Authors

Posted November 10, 2020
Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

In celebration of National Novel Writing month, Authors Alliance is pleased to bring you resources and information about copyright issues of interest to fiction authors. In this post, we will go over some of the elements of fiction writing that simply do not qualify for copyright protection. Later this month, we delve into a discussion of the copyrightability of characters in literary works and survey issues in fair use that are relevant to fiction writers

It is a basic tenet of copyright law that some things are simply outside of copyright protection. These are often referred to as uncopyrightable subject matter. There are a few a bright line rules in the United States⁠—for example, that titles of literary works, slogans, and lists of ingredients cannot be copyrighted⁠—but outside of these principles, things become a bit more complicated.

Categories of uncopyrightable subject matter affecting fiction writers are ideas, themes, and scènes à faire. These concepts are closely related, and the overarching justification for excluding them from copyright protection is that they are simply too general and standard to a particular genre or convention for an individual creator to be granted a temporary monopoly on them—which is what copyright provides. 

Ideas and Themes

Ideas and themes cannot be copyrighted, although the expression of a particular idea or theme can be. In other words, when a fictional work involves a particular concept, a later work’s use of this concept cannot form the basis of an infringement claim, though copying the words used to express the idea or theme could constitute infringement. 

In Williams v. Crichton, the author of a series of children’s books sued the author of Jurassic Park, alleging that the film infringed his copyright in his own book, which also involved “the concept of a dinosaur zoo.” After examining each work in turn, the court concluded that both portrayed dinosaur zoos, but also found that the idea of a dinosaur zoo could not be copyrighted. The dinosaur zoos were expressed in different ways: one was in a natural remote island, another an entirely man-made attraction. 

Similarly, in Allen v. Scholastic, a court considered an allegation that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire infringed the copyright in a lesser-known picture book. Both works had a wizard protagonist who participated in a wizarding competition, and both were “primarily created for children,” but the similarities ended there: Allen’s work was just sixteen pages, whereas Rowling’s was over 700. The works were “distinctly different in both substance and style” and elicited “very different visceral responses from their readers.” Here too, the idea of a wizarding competition was found to be outside of copyright protection. 

In Madrid v. Chronicle Books, poet Lori Madrid alleged that the Pixar film, Monsters, Inc., infringed her copyright in a poem about a monster which is frightened to discover a human child in its closet. Madrid argued that the presence of “a big, fat, furry monster with horns on its head” and “monsters in children’s bedroom closets and vice versa” in both works was evidence of infringement. The court disagreed, finding that both were uncopyrightable ideas. The court pointed to other earlier works which also made use of these ideas—such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are—as evidence that they were not the kind of original, creative expression copyright seeks to protect. 

Themes—which often flow from ideas central to a work—are similarly not subject to copyright protection. In the Scholastic case about Harry Potter, themes of friendship and competition in both works were found insufficient to establish a copyright infringement claim, as these concepts were too general such that finding infringement would go against copyright’s goal of encouraging the free exchange of ideas. And in the Chronicle Books case about Monsters, Inc., the theme of a mother-child relationship was similarly too general to serve as the basis of an infringement claim. 

Scènes à Faire

Scènes à faire (from the French for “scenes to be made”) are characters, settings, events, or other elements of a work which are standard in the treatment of a given topic. The doctrine of scènes à faire recognizes that these elements are not copyrightable and cannot form the basis for a claim of infringement. In the Jurassic Park case discussed in the previous section, for example, the court found that “electrified fences,” “workers in uniforms,” and “dinosaur nurseries” were scènes à faire that flowed naturally from the unprotectable idea of a dinosaur zoo. Because the idea of the dinosaur zoo itself cannot be protected, and a dinosaur zoo is likely to include these elements as a logical matter, they also are not subject to copyright protection. 

Courts have found that certain ideas or literary genres are associated with particular scènes à faire, such that those elements cannot form the basis of an infringement claim. In Hogan v. D.C. Comics, considering an allegation that one vampire novel infringed another, a court found that “imagery of blood, religious symbolism such as crosses and allusions to the bible” were indispensable to vampire tales, making these elements scènes à faire in this context. Similarly, in DuBay v. King, considering an allegation that Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series infringed the copyright in a cartoon published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a court found that similarities in the protagonists’ “looks” did not constitute infringement where both were “[a] western, or cowboy-looking loner often in desolate or eerie surroundings.” Because such a costume and presentation was standard in a story about the Old West, these similarities were scènes à faire and could not form the basis of an infringement claim.