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Copyright protection of ideas?

We get this a lot: you have a good idea for a book/app/film/game and you want to make sure that no one else takes your idea and runs with it. Is your idea or concept protected by copyright?

The short answer is no. The protection offered by copyright is only intended for the so-called expression of the idea or concept. The concept of a movie about young wizards at a school for magic cannot be protected, but the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone itself can be.

So no copyright protection for ideas or concepts alone. This recently resulted in considerable disappointment for the Groep Educatieve Uitgevers (GEU), the trade association for publishers of educational material. GEU had a conflict with Snappet. Snappet offers teaching methods on tablets that are very similar to those of GEU. Too much, according to GEU.

In 2016 the court had already ruled that Snappet does not infringe the copyrights of GEU. GEU did not leave it at that and appealed. Its director said: “Think of it as the filming of a book. You have to have official permission to do this, because the line of the book is reflected in the film. It’s not about the dialogues, those are often different in the book and in the film. It’s about the line. And we believe that this is also the case with the learning lines.”

The Court of Appeal of The Hague followed the court: the abstract learning lines (ideas) are free; GEU only has copyright to the concrete expression of its material (design, text, illustrations). It is precisely in this area that the materials are not very similar. There are even eye-catching differences. The copyright claims of GEU are therefore rejected again.

Anyone who has spent a long time thinking about coming up with an original concept will be disappointed that it is not, or hardly, protected by copyright. On the other hand, this limited protection means that we don’t have just one thriller, novel or horror film. One can give one’s own creative twist to an idea or concept, even if he or she was not the first to come up with that idea.

Mathijs Peijnenburg, copyright lawyer

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