Drawing Idea from Expression: Creating a Legal Space for Culturally Appropriated Literary Characters

30 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2008


This paper examines the influx of secondary creativity involving culturally iconic literary characters (i.e. Harry Potter fan-fiction) and considers whether, and how, copyright law should account for the unauthorized appropriation of these protected literary characters. Traditionally, the courts have held that characters are independently copyrightable if they meet one of two tests: the distinct delineation test espoused by Learned Hand in the Seventh Circuit opinion, Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation (1930), or the story being told test put forward by the Ninth Circuit in Warner Brothers Pictures v. Columbia Broadcasting System (1954). These existing standards for character protection focus on the rights and the entitlements of the original author. This paper argues that copyright law should do more to focus on the creative rights of readers, who often seek to employ iconic characters as tools for cultural dialogue and artistic expression. This shift towards readers' rights may require more than just the expansion of fair use principles over a greater number of secondary uses. What is required, more fundamentally, is a re-conceptualizing of the idea of protectibility in the first place. Certain iconic characters, because they are imbued with so much cultural meaning, are no longer singularly-owned forms of authorial expression; they have become, instead, collectively-owned concepts - tools for expression - in a society constantly engaged in creative dialogue. Hence, on the idea/expression continuum that allows copyright protection for expressions but not ideas, culturally-appropriated characters should fall more appropriately into the realm of the unprotected idea, and in this way, allow greater freedom for secondary uses.

Keywords: copyright, literary characters, fanfiction

Suggested Citation

Chung, Jacqueline Lai, Drawing Idea from Expression: Creating a Legal Space for Culturally Appropriated Literary Characters. William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1093204

Jacqueline Lai Chung (Contact Author)

William & Mary School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187
United States

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