Trace Your Case


Baker v. Selden ; 101 U.S. (1879)


  • Whether Baker had infringed copyrights held by Selden?
  • Whether Selden had an exclusive right to the use of the system explained in his book?


  • Idea-Expression Dichotomy: A copyright can be obtained only over a particular expression of an idea, it does not protect the idea that underlies that expression and this is what limits copyrights and differentiates it from patents.
  • An idea/art/method can be patented whereas the expression of an idea/art/method can be copyrighted.


  • “Selden’s Condensed Ledger, or Book-keeping Simplified” was written by Selden.
  • It was released in 1859, and its legitimate copyrights were registered. This book introduced a novel approach to bookkeeping.
  • Additionally, Selden had the rights to any modifications made to this system in the future. Selden had written six such novels in total.
  • These works provided an explanation of the system and its justification. He held the copyrights for future improvements made to this system as well.
  • Baker has used a similar system in his books. Although the tables used in Baker’s publications had varied headers and column configurations, they employed a similar structure.


  • The court held in favour of Baker. They did not find Baker’s usage to be violative of copyright as was claimed by Selden.
  • It was held that though Baker has used the system as mentioned in Seldon’s books, that alone was not enough to prove that infringement is done.
  • The court emphasised that if this type of usage is held to by copyright infringement then the user could potentially stop others from using it as well and this would be countering the purpose of the copyright law protection.
  • The court reasoned that an author can explain the truths of a science or the methods of an art through his book and can obtain a copyright for his work but this copyright is limited to the expression of the method or system and does not extend to the idea or the system itself.
  • If the author wants to protect the system/idea he will have to be granted a patent for his method/idea and protecting an idea under the copyright law would amount to fraud on the public.
  • Copyright protects the book as a whole and the expression of an idea through that book.
  • The very object of publishing a book is to impart some knowledge to the public and if people were made liable of infringement each time they used the idea described in the book, it would defeat the purpose.
  • Copyright is mainly concerned with publishing and selling rights and does not give the author exclusive rights over an idea alone.
  • In this case, Baker was not infringing the copyrights of Selden’s book as he borrowed the idea from Selden’s book but expressed it in a different manner by ensuring that the columns and headings to those columns were different.