Can a computer be copyrighted without giving it all away?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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That depends on what you mean by “it”. A computer chip design, or a software program–the code for the electronic patterns that make the computer “compute”–can be the object of a copyright. Copyrights can only be made for original creations, not brute-force compilations or rote accumulations; and they will not prevent someone else from creating another, similar, expression (as long as they didn’t copy it from yours). So the idea for a great computer program is not something you can copyright, but no one else can duplicate your unique animation(s).

If you read “copyright” as two words, you immediately realize that the government has given the holder (and through him, anyone he licenses) the right to copy what has been protected. Unlike patents, copyrights do not cover the underlying idea. Instead, it covers a creative expression that can be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, that can then be copied many times over.

Copyrights last much longer than patents, generally, but are much, much narrower. Copyrights and patents, and copyrights and trademarks, work well together. Since you have to deposit with the US Copyright Office two copies of your creation, but may submit less than the whole or omit particularly sensitive portions (if the software program exceeds 50 pages), there is some public record; but you can “keep back” the particularly valuable parts of your code and still get a copyright. However, if you do, you may have trouble proving in court, later, that someone who duplicates those parts of your code actually copied them from you. Also (unlike patents) copyrights can be automatically transferred to your employer under the “work for hire” doctrine, where an implied condition of your employment is your employer’s ownership of your creative output.

If you are selling your creativity, this is one of the times it’s wise to check with an intellectual property lawyer and consider a contract explicitly addressing who owns what.

Since computers affect not only what you are doing, but how you may be recognized or contacted, other intellectual property rights are important, too.

One should look at what you are doing not only from the vantage point of computer hardware and software, other intellectual property rights may be involved with your computer and related activities.

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