What Does Copyright Protect? - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Q. I wrote a play which contains a Superman-type superhero. I understand that I can protect this play through the copyright office or the Guild. But, will this also protect my superhero? Or, would I need to copyright my hero separately?
As I've written in my book, registering your work with the Library of Congress gives you much stronger protection than registering it with either Guild.

Copyright protects the expression of your idea, which includes characters. No one can put Harry Potter in their own novel or movie without permission of J. K. Rowling. It does not protect the basic idea, e.g. 14-year-old wizard fights evil dead wizard with the help of his disturbingly hot 14-year-old female wizard friend.

You'll note that D&D had "orcs" but not "hobbits." That's because "orc" is an old English word for a goblin, and therefore not copyright-able, as is "halfling," but "hobbit" was an invention of J. R. R. Tolkien. Although D&D borrowed heavily from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it kept away from his characters, and his invented character classes. (Which does not prevent you from putting Shelob in your home game.)

Once the merchandising companies get involved, they tend to also trademark characters. Superman is trademarked. The big "S" logo is trademarked. The bat logo of Batman is trademarked. If you make action figures, you'll trademark them in addition to copyrighting the text you wrote about them.

Now: how the hell are you going to make your character in your play fly?

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6 Comments:

I've never understood why TSR stayed away from "hobbit" but felt free to include the Melnibonean mythos in the first "Deities and Demigods" without clearing the rights. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elric#Adaptations

By Blogger Webs, at 2:16 PM  

Because Melniboné is REAL, of course!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:27 PM  

They didn't actually stay away from hobbits. The terms Hobbit, Balrog, and Ent were used in the earliest printings of the game, but were changed to Halfling, Balor, and Treant when they heard from the Tolkien estate.

Likewise, later printings of Dieties and Demigods removed the Melnibonean and Lovecraftian sections of that book, in response to legal threats.

By Blogger Alan Scott, at 11:12 PM  

Sandy Duncan flew around stage for several years in PETER PAN.

Those theater folk are a crafty bunch.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 2:25 AM  

what about the self-adressed postmarking thing? Is there any real protection if you mail a script to yourself and keep it sealed w/a postmark?

By Blogger Lokier, at 9:46 PM  

Not really, Lokier. It's hard to prove you didn't send yourself an unsealed envelope and then put something in it later.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:44 AM  

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