Baker v. Selden (101 U.S. 99)
is one of the earliest and most important of all copyright infringement cases. It is heavily cited in
explaining the idea-expression divide, a concept that outlines the underlying
concepts of copyright laws. It explains that U.S. copyright laws are set into
place to protect the expression of an idea rather than the idea itself. The
case, which took place in 1879, concluded that the exclusive rights to what is
known as “useful art” which may be written in a book are only
protected under U.S. intellectual property law through a patent. The
description itself contained in the book would be protected under copyright.
A man by the name of Charles Selden obtained a
copyright for a book he wrote which was intended to portray an improved system
of bookkeeping entitled Bookkeeping Simplified. The book, although containing
only 650 words, contained mostly bookkeeping forms. There were also several
examples outlined in addition to an introduction.
created several additional books, which were arguably just new revisions to the
same original book. Selden was unsuccessful in selling his books, even after
attempting to sell them to several counties, as well as the United States
Department of Treasury. Before Selden’s death, he assigned his interest, which
was returned to his wife.
W.C.M Baker produced a book in 1867 which
described a very similar system to Selden’s system of bookkeeping. Baker was
able to sell the book to 40 counties in under five years. It was not long
before Selden’s widow, Elizabeth, discovered Baker’s success with Selden’s
similar bookkeeping techniques. She hired an attorney and took legal action
against Baker in 1872 and sued him for copyright infringement.
The Trial and Appeal
The court decided that Baker’s books contained
information and material which was too similar not to be liable for copyright
infringement. As a result, the court ordered a permanent injunction which
prevented Baker from further publication or sale of his book. Baker and his
legal team immediately filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United
States, which claimed that Selden’s work is not valid copyright subject matter.
was found by the Court that the idea contained within a book is not enforced
through copyright law, but rather through patent law. Only the description or
expression of an idea is protected by a copyright. Justice Joseph P. Bradley
wrote of the case, “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.” Baker v. Selden has been written into the U.S.
Code §102(b) of the Copyright Act.