313.3 (B) Merger of Idea and Expression
In some cases, there may be only one way or only a limited number of ways to express a particular idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. If the U.S. Copyright Office determines that extending copyright protection to the author’s expression would effectively accord protection to the idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery itself, the registration specialist may communicate with the applicant or may refuse to register the claim.
For example, the Office cannot register a claim in the mere idea for a story that is based on a common theme, such as “a quarrel between a Jewish father and an Irish father, the marriage of their children, the birth of grandchildren and a reconciliation.” See Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119, 122 (2d Cir. 1930). The Office cannot register a claim based solely on standard programming techniques that are commonly used to achieve a specific result in a computer program. See, e.g., Sega Enterprises, Ltd. v. Accolade, Inc., 977 F.2d 1510, 1524 (9th Cir. 1992). Likewise, the Office cannot register a claim based solely on standard expressions that naturally follow from the idea for a work of authorship, such as a sculpture that depicts a brightly colored jellyfish swimming in a vertical orientation. See Satava v. Lowry, 323 F.3d 805, 811 (9th Cir. 2003).