Are facts copyrighted?
No. Generally, facts and utilitarian language can’t receive copyright protection. Facts about the natural world or current and past events may be discovered, but that discovery isn’t an act of authorship that the law deems worthy enough to protect. This means that even if someone spends a lot of time and mental energy discovering a fact, you can still copy that fact and use it in your own work in any way you want without issue.
For example, the discoverer of an uncharted island didn’t actually conjure the location of that island through an act of original creation, so the island doesn’t meet the originality or fixation requirements. Copyright laws were originally enacted for the benefit of the general public. If anyone could just take temporary ownership of facts about the world, pretty soon people couldn’t discuss any current event without receiving a cease-and-desist letter in the mail.
Examples of facts include:
- Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States.
- Mosquitoes are common carriers of malaria.
A fact still can’t be protected even if you’re the one who independently created the fact, or you’re the only person who knows about the fact.
Examples of secret facts are:
- You can see me perform my secret concert at Balboa Park tomorrow night.
- The watercolor in my closet that I painted is blue.
It’s easy to remember why facts can’t be legally protected if you just think of the converse, what would happen if facts could be protected: newspapers would go out of business (even more quickly than they are right now). Journalists and historians who couldn’t find completely brand new facts would be out of jobs because they wouldn’t be able to write about anything. Science and culture would stop. Creativity would quickly slow to a halt.
Keep in mind, though, there is a very small, sophisticated category of facts that can be legally protected, not by copyright law, but by “trade secret” laws. There are also state laws that potentially protect the misappropriation of facts and non-copyrightable information from databases.
If you’re still confused, it may be worthwhile to read more about what can and can’t be copyrighted.
If you have a question about whether your factual work can be protected by copyright law and the alternative ways the law protects those who gather facts, feel free to contact New Media Rights at (619) 591-8870 or firstname.lastname@example.org for free, pro bono legal assistance.
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