Baker v. Selden

Baker v. Selden

Baker v. Selden

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.

Selden 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.

The appeal process closely examined the difference between patent law and copyright law. It 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.




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