Home > Contracts, Copyright > Claiming Copyright in a Legal Document

Claiming Copyright in a Legal Document

I was presented with an interesting question today: Can someone claim copyright in a legal document, such as a contract for sale?

My first inclination was to say “no,” based on the idea that a contract is really a compendium of facts (lacking much creativity), and the necessary merger between idea (I want this term in the contract) and expression (here’s the term). But then I thought perhaps one could claim that either the language they used, or the particular arrangement of clauses, could be the basis of creative expression in the document.  In the end, I decided that for what is, essentially, a standard form contract, there would be little (i.e. “thin”) or no protection of the words.

Intrigued, and wanting to know if I was on the right track, I did a little Web surfing. I found two good posts on the subject, one of them being from someone with whom I’ve had correspondence in the past.

Here, at the Invent Blog, Stephen Nipper raises essentially the same question I had. I’m not sure what Stephen concludes, but he does link to a nice explanation and discussion of the issues at AdamsDrafting. Ken Adams appears to reach the same conclusion I did, which is that there’s possible protection, but it would require more novelty than is present in most (almost all?) contracts.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, please let me know. I haven’t been able to find any on-point case law.

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  1. Colin
    March 6, 2010 at 5:49 AM

    These are absolutely copyrightable, though your conclusion of a “thin” copyright is correct. True, legal forms and contracts are “collections of facts”, but so is computer software, and the particular collection and representation contains a high degree of creativity – sufficient to generate the result desired. Legal documents are really quite like software – they define the operation of society the way software defines the operation of a computer.

    • March 6, 2010 at 8:37 AM

      Colin,
      Your analogy to computer software is interesting, and you make a very good point.
      Thanks for the comment.
      Bryan

  2. Alex A. Davis
    September 12, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    I am an independent paralegal who created a document used by several clients. I created this document indepently and without the assistance or under the direction of an attorney. An attorney reviewed the document for accuracy of legal citation and soundness of argument. He did not revise any part of the document. Several days ago, I came across the exact same document that was being used by a legal document preparation service. They had charged the individual $200 and gave him an exact copy of my document, word for word. I have never been contacted by anyone at the legal document preparation service. They are profited from someone that I created. I have no recourse?

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