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The relevance of Idea-Expression dichotomy under copyright law in the context of computer programs



The idea-expression dichotomy was designed to make sure that the expression of a concept (rather than the idea itself) is safeguarded. The idea is well-known in the United States, and it is not uncommon in Indian law.Courts have frequently held that ideas are not copyrightable in and of themselves; only the expression of an idea is. An idea is the expression of one’s thoughts on a specific topic, but an expression is how that concept is put into action.While numerous people may have the same concept, copyright can only be claimed in the form of an expression of that idea. A distinct, unique layout of words, designs, or other forms is required for such expression. As a result, such a system allows for multiple expressions of the same concept.

Distinction between Idea and Expression

Distinguishing between the two is difficult due to the idea-expression duality. Due to the lack of a statutory provision, many case laws have been used to try to draw a clear separation between the two.

A landmark case on the idea – expression dichotomy is RG Anand v Deluxe Film[1] (1978). In this case the plaintiff filed the case against the directors of the movie “Hum Hindustani”, for permanent injunction and damages, as he was of the opinion that the movie was based on his play’s story.

The Supreme Court ruled that the film could not be regarded an infringement of the play’s screenplay. The reason it gave was that, while the ideas behind both stories were the same, the ways in which they were conveyed were significantly different. As a result, it cannot be considered a copyright violation.

Where did it all begin?

Baker v. Selden[2] (1879), a case from the United States Supreme Court, is the first to address the idea-expression divide.It was about a copyright issue with an account book. Selden had produced a book that discussed how to enhance bookkeeping by arranging columns and headings in a way that made the ledger book simpler to read. Baker achieved a similar outcome by arranging the columns and headings in a different way.While a copyright may exist for the publication and sale of a book, it still does not extend to the concepts and “art” depicted in the book, according to the court.

In the above case, the United States Supreme Court established a clear distinction between an idea and its expression for the primary reason that doing so would give the copyright holder an unwarranted monopoly and would be anti-competitive.

Courts on idea-expression dichotomy in computer program


The case of Whelan is one of the first in which a court attempted to discern between the idea/expression dichotomies in the context of computer programmes.The court’s ruling for determining which parts are protectable and which are not in this instance is that the function or purpose of any utilitarian work is the work’s idea, and everything that isn’t necessary for that function or purpose is part of the work’s expression.When there are multiple ways to achieve a desired goal, the method chosen isn’t vital for the goal, and they are expressions rather than ideas.The decision had the consequence of paving the way for tighter protection, which stifled innovation because anything other than the broad purpose of the software was protected.

  • LOTUS V. PAPERBACK[4] (1990)

The idea/expression dichotomy in electronic spreadsheets is the subject of this case.The question was whether or not the non-literal parts of Lotus 1-2-3, i.e. the user interface, are protectable, and if so, to what extent.

The court’s legal criteria were that, first and foremost, the decision maker must consider alternatives along a scale ranging from the most generalized to the most specific, and select some formulation, conception, or definition of the idea.

In the second phase, determine whether the said expression of the idea is limited to aspects fundamental to that thought’s expression, i.e., there are only a few ways to express the idea, or if it contains identifiable parts of expression that are not required to every representation of that idea.

Third, after non-essential components of expression have been identified, the focus must shift to whether those parts are a considerable portion of the supposedly copyrightable “work.”

“In general, concepts are not copyrightable,” the court stated. If, on the other hand, the expression of ideas has features that go beyond the functional parts of the idea itself, even the obvious ones, and if there are several other ways of expressing the idea, then those elements of expression, if fundamental and original, are copyrightable.”


The claim is that Microsoft’s later versions can only be as similar to Windows 1.0 as possible, and cannot be more similar to Lisa and Macintosh than Windows 1.0. The dispute is whether Microsoft has the right to copy particular pieces or design characteristics of Windows 1.0, and whether derivative systems can resemble Macintosh more than Windows 1.0.

When a concept and its expression are indistinguishable or have fused, the expression is only protected against near-exact duplication, according to the court.As a result, portraying it as a page is self-evident. As a result, no protection may be provided under Scenes a Fair doctrine.


The Altai case is a pivotal decision in the realm of computer programs, and it helps distinguish between idea and expression when non-literal elements are included. The court in this case first considers the programmer’s method of designing a computer program.

The court noted that the legislative history shows that copyright in computer programs is protectable solely to the extent that they involve authorship in the programmer’s expression of creative ideas as opposed to the ideas themselves.If a literary work’s non-literal elements are protected by copyright, then a computer program’s non-literal elements are also protected.

  • GOOGLE V. ORACLE[7] (2021)

Issues in this case are: 1. Is there any copyright protection for a software interface?

2. Is the claimant’s use of a software interface in the context of developing a new computer programme fair use?

By a majority of 6, the court held that, assuming that a software interface is protected by copyright, Google’s restricted copying of the Java SE Application Programming Interface was a fair use of the material under copyright law.

By simultaneously guaranteeing artists exclusive copyrights while yet limiting the extent of those rights through the fair use doctrine, copyright law attempts to foster the advancement of science and useful arts. The Court presumed that software code is protected by copyright in order to make only the decisions required to resolve the case.


The line separating an expression of the underlying notion is thin and tricky, as we can see from the above study. It becomes even more perplexing when it comes to computer programs. In the preceding cases, the courts attempted to eliminate the confusion and uncertainty by prescribing parameters and tests.The pattern appears to be that when a court attempts to resolve a particular factual situation, additional complex situations arise quickly, and the judiciary appears to be straining to apply the criteria developed in previous legal difficulties in future legal issues.

[1] 1978 AIR 1613

[2] 101 U.S. 99 (1879)

[3]479 U.S. 1031 (1987)

[4]740 F. Supp. 37 (D. Mass. 1990)

[5] (1994) 35 F.3d 1435 (9th Cir.)

[6] (1992) 982 F.2d 693 (2d Cir.)

[7]593 U.S. ___ (2021)

Contributed by:– Nidhi Jha, Legal intern at LLL

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