A recent spat between former UK Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell and retail giant John Lewis raised interesting questions around the extent of copyright protection with Riddell claiming that John Lewis’ highly anticipated Christmas advert bore a resemblance to his 1986 picture book, Mr Underbed.
In order to infringe copyright in the UK, the infringing work must be a direct or indirect copy of the copyright work (i.e. not derived from some unrelated source). John Lewis has therefore been quick to point out that the storyline of Moz the Monster is based on a universal tale of children being afraid of monsters under the bed – and not derived from Riddell’s work.
In any event, even if Moz the Monster has the same ideas and themes as Mr Underbed, there is no copyright protection for an idea as such. Copyright protects the expression of an idea i.e. the author’s particular choice of text and illustration. What must be shown to be copied is the way in which that idea has been expressed. The copy need not be identical, but there must be sufficient objective similarity for the infringing work to be described as a substantial reproduction or adaption of the copyright work.
Where the line is drawn between copying an idea and copying the expression of that idea is highly fact dependent and Riddell would not be the first author to assert that a third party has gone too far. The issue was famously considered in the high-profile copyright infringement claim brought by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (“HBHG”) against Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Whilst Dan Brown accepted that he had used HBHG in his research for The Da Vinci Code, the Court recognised that what he had taken from HBHG were only generalised propositions, at too high a level of abstraction to qualify for copyright protection.
Therefore, The Da Vinci Code merely copied ideas from HBHG and not the expression of those ideas, thus there was no copyright infringement. John Lewis would likely use a similar argument here: the retailer has simply taken the idea of a monster beneath a child’s bed and expressed it in their own original way.
However, as copyright can protect many aspects of a creative work in their own right, Riddell may have had a stronger claim if he had considered whether any particular aspect of his overall work had been copied, even if the work as a whole was not copied.