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This one’s a little dry, but it’s also short.
A copyright protects the expression of an idea. For example, an author can write a poem about springtime, and because the text is sufficiently complex, it can give rise to a copyright as long as there’s at least some reasonable amount of creativity (a.k.a., originality) in that text. However, that doesn’t mean the author now owns the idea of springtime; the author owns only the particular expression of it (and all “substantially similar” variations of it). The reason the idea isn’t protected, but the expression is, should be obvious: If an author copyrighted the idea, then no one else could write about springtime during the life of the copyright. The public must be able to discuss springtime. It’s part of life. (Note: This is also why a single word is never sufficiently complex to earn a copyright. If someone could copyright the word, “spoon,” then the public couldn’t discuss spoons for quite some time.) On the other hand, the author’s particular expression of springtime can be copyrighted because there are a seemingly infinite number of ways for the rest of the public to write about springtime. That is, there are many other options that will allow others to write about springtime while still allowing the author the sole right to copy and profit off of their particularly clever and enjoyable expression, as well as any substantially similar variations of it. This is the essence of copyright.
However, what if there aren’t a seemingly infinite number of ways to express and idea, or what if all the other ways to express it are all substantially similar to one another? This is where the merger doctrine comes into play. In such a case, the expression is said to merge with the idea, such that the expression cannot be copyrighted regardless of how complex the expression is, and regardless of whether the author was actually the first person ever to express it. (In the case of my example of a poem about springtime, that was first done long before the concept of copyright existed.) This is an important doctrine for the reason given above: If not for the merger doctrine, in situations where there aren’t a reasonable number of options available to express and idea, then no one would be able to express it as long as that copyright exists. That is, the copyright would effectively extend to the underlying idea itself. Under current law, the term of copyright is far too long in my opinion, but even if the term of copyright were more reasonable, any amount of time to prohibit expression of an idea is too long. Fortunately, the law recognizes that.
Rob Bodine is a Virginia attorney focusing his practice on real estate and intellectual property law. He’s currently Virginia counsel with Cardinal Title Group, a Virginia title insurance and settlement company. Rob is also a licensed title insurance agent in Maryland and Virginia.