Can you protect ideas through copyright?

If you are a startup working on a software product, then besides patents, copyright is your legal best friend.

Indian copyright law gives you various rights when it comes to protecting your property. However, copyright does not protect ideas, information or concepts. So in order to manage your intellectual property effectively and get the best out of it, you need to know exactly what is covered by copyright, how you can use it to your advantage, and what you need to do further to protect your intellectual property.

What exactly does copyright protect?

Indian copyright law provides you with exclusive rights[1] to publish (digital or otherwise), control who can copy or perform your original work, and control who can make derivative works and attribution rights or authorize others to do so. Under the Indian Copyright Act, original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works are protected[2].

Intellectual property like original song lyrics, musical scores, academic articles, diagrams and movie scripts are protected under copyright if they are published in India or where they are unpublished or first published outside India, if the author is a citizen of India. Sound recordings and cinematography are protected[3] as long as the copyright of some other work is not infringed while creating them. International material may also be protected by Indian Copyright Act[4].

So does what does original work mean?

In the case of Eastern Book Company & Ors vs. D.B. Modak & Ors[5], the Supreme Court of India held that:

  • The word original does not mean that the work must be the expression of original or inventive thought
  • For a work to be original, the work must not be copied from another work – that it should originate from the author
  • With regards to compilation, originality is a matter of degree depending on the amount of skill, judgment or labor that has been involved in making the compilation.

 Ideas are not protected by copyright

Copyright exists in the expression of an idea, not the idea itself[6]. Indian Copyright law does not recognize property rights in abstract ideas. This means that until you express your idea in a tangible form, you have no protection. When an idea is given embodiment in a tangible form it becomes subject of common law property rights which are protected by the courts at least when it can be said to be novel and new.

For example, if you were writing a business strategy or marketing plan, then the expression of the idea in words and any associated diagrams can be protected by copyright. However, copyright cannot prevent your competitor from implementing the idea in his business. Copyright protects the aesthetics and not the functional.

In India, copyright automatically protects the expression from the time that it is created and no registration is required. However, copyright registration has its own advantages.

To sum it all up,

  • Copyright protects the expression, not the idea.
  • Copyright protection starts when recorded in tangible form.
  • If the work is not original then it is not protected by copyright.

 However, you can work around this and invest in more practical ways to protect your ideas:

  • Register a patent in relation to functional aspects of the implementation of your idea.
  • Register a trade mark in relation to logos/brand names,
  • Register design protection in relation to unique shape/configuration/pattern of your product
  • Keep ideas confidential.
  • Always consider having an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) before any discussion
  • Put a copyright notice on your work


[1] Section 14 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957

[2] Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957

[3] Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957

[4] Section 40 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957

[5] Eastern Book Company & Ors vs. D.B. Modak & Ors, 2008 (36) PTC 1 (SC)

[6] R.G Anand vs. M/S. Delux Films & Ors, 1979 SCR (1) 218



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  1. Dr.S.Rama murthy says:

    “Copyright” has become an important issue in Cinematography and academia. In cinematography, there are several cases where copyright infringement has taken place.The awareness of copyright infringement should be created to students who have a tendency to copy others’ reports, while preparing project reports.


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