Selden wrote a how-to book
that described a new, exciting method of bookkeeping, including example
ledgers for better ways to keep track of revenues and expenses.
Baker wrote a book on
bookkeeping also. It used ledgers that were pretty much the same as the
ones Selden proposed. Selden sued for copyright infringement.
Selden argued that Baker had
stolen his method.
Baker argued that you can't
copyright a method, only an expression of that method. Because his book didn't slavishly copy
Selden's, it was not a violation of Selden's copyright.
Baker didn't copy any of
the text from Selden's book, he just used the same bookkeeping system.
The Trial Court found for
Selden. Baker appealed.
The Trial Court found that Baker's
books were "in large and material part identical with and
infringements of the books of Selden system."
The US Supreme Court reversed.
The US Supreme Court found
that a copyright did not give an author the right to prevent others from
using the same method.
"The copyright of a
book on bookkeeping cannot secure the exclusive right to make, sell, and
use account books prepared upon the plan set forth in such a book."
The Court found that Selden
couldn't copyright the forms because the forms are necessary to the use
of the bookkeeping system (aka merger).
The concept of merger is that if an idea can only be expressed in
one way or a few ways, granting a copyright on that expression would
effectively lock up anybody from using the idea. Therefore, since you
can't copyright ideas, you can't copyright those limited ways to express
the idea because the idea behind the work merges with its expression.
The Court found that the
forms are functional and not expressive, so Selden couldn't copyright
the forms for that reason either.
The Court found that what
Selden was really trying to protect was a patent on his method, but he
didn't have a patent. He only had a copyright.
Patents are used to protect
ideas and methods (aka "useful arts"). Copyrights can only be
used to protect expressions.
"The description of
the art in a book, though entitled to the benefit of copyright, lays no
foundation for an exclusive claim to the art itself."
At the time, Selden's
method would probably not have been eligible for patent protection, but
he could probably patent it now under 35 U.S.C. §101.
The decision in this case has
now been codified in 17 U.S.C. §102(b).
See also 37 C.F.R. §201.1, which says that blank forms are not