Thursday, September 27, 2012

Art v. Science

More science than art. That's the best way to describe the last category of uncopyrightable material. Or I can give you a list the way the U.S. Copyright Office does and simply say that you can't copyright procedures, methods, systems, processes, discoveries, or devices.

This grouping does cover some materials that wouldn't earn the label "science." Procedures and methods include such things as sweepstakes rules and instructions for preparing recipes. There are only so many ways to tell someone to write his or her name and address on a sheet of paper and mail it in. Or to instruct a cook to mix ingredients together and bake them in a 350 degree oven. If that information could be copyrighted, sweepstakes sponsors and Internet recipe sites would all be at risk.

But "more science than art" is still the best umbrella phrase for this category. Copyright is for the creative arts, not for scientific mechanisms.

Scientific items like inventions are protected under patent law, instead. But descriptions, explanations, and illustrations of those devices can be copyrighted if the text or drawing contains sufficient creativity.

Then there are the "useful arts," which combine art and science--or at least art and function. Useful articles cannot be copyrighted but the design elements in them can be if--and only if--they are physically or functionally separate from the device itself. This will rarely if ever apply to writers as writers, but it's a fun exercise anyway.

Look at the picture above, which shows the candle holders my daughter bought for her wedding reception. A pretty design, with a heart at the base and a circular staircase wending its way to the top. Art, but not copyrightable. That's because the bottom heart acts as the stand and the spiral keeps the candle from falling over. The design is an integral part of the function.

But all is not lost. There are other ways to merge art with function without losing your copyright in the art. You can't keep people from painting pictures on ceramic vases, but you can keep them from painting the same picture you created.

Because that's more art than science.

Kathryn Page Camp

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