Can Formulas Be Copyrighted?

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Intellectual property -- trademarks, copyrights, patents -- is a business asset. Whether you've developed a formula for a new soft drink, an industrial solvent or a new equation for managing investments, it may be fantastically valuable to your company. You can't copyright formulas, but there are other ways you can protect them from the competition.


If your company develops a chemical formula, you protect it with a patent, not a copyright. You can patent a formula for "the composition of matter" -- new compounds or chemicals -- provided it meets three conditions. The new chemical must be useful. It must be significantly different from previous compounds. It must also be nonobvious -- original enough that experts in your industry are surprised someone came up with such an idea.


You cannot copyright an idea or concept, only the way that it's expressed. You also cannot copyright a fact, such as "Two plus two equals four." Algorithms and math formulas don't fit well between these restrictions. In 2010, for instance, a judge threw out two plaintiffs' claims that they could copyright their mathematical model for electron dynamics. If your formula is part of a business process, however -- an investment strategy, for instance -- it might be patentable.


The U.S. Copyright Office says online that while it doesn't protect recipes or formulas, you may be able to copyright the way you express them. A recipe for red velvet cake isn't copyrightable. A cookbook or a cooking-magazine article on red velvet cake may be covered if it's more than a list of ingredients and instructions. Likewise, mathematical and chemical formulas aren't protected by copyright, but a math or chemistry textbook would be.

Trade Secrets

If your formula gives your business a competitive advantage, you can protect it as a trade secret. To claim trade secret status, you have to treat it as confidential, restricting access to the data and requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Federal and state laws contain legal penalties for employees or hackers who divulge confidential business information. You can also collect damages if your business suffers because someone else got the information.

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