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I have used information gleaned from various sources to create a unique format for doing tea parties. My format includes an

Altoona, PA |

etiquette presentation, history of tea, and a music concert to follow. No one does teas like I do, and even those who have been to England have said they never experienced something so unique. I use dramatization in the presentation of these facts, and started doing this in 2002. In 2002 I wrote out all of the words I use in this presentation, the format I would follow, (always etiquette first, a 5 course tea, history of tea, concert and the unique way I set the tables, as well as a business plan. Because this is so unique to me, I began researching and discovered that because I created it, I own the copyright. I have sent this written presentation to the copyright office to register it. Does this protect me from someone stealing my unique format and using it to make money? Thank you!

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Attorney answers 4


Copyrights are for expressive works like books, films, sculpture, songs, poems, paintings, etc., and they don't protect the ideas underlying those particular expressions.

Formats aren't copyrightable, and this sounds more like something that could be patented.

In your application for registration with the Copyright Office, did you classify this as a literary work? A dramatic work? Don't assume that just because you wrote down the words you use in your presentation, that doesn't mean that your work is in the "fixed" and "tangible" state to qualfiy for a copyright.

There's also the issue of what elements you use in your presentation. Is the music you're using original? If not and it's already under copyright, you need to pay performance royalties to the author's music publishers, and you'd have to exclude pre-existing works from any claims you make using these works in your presentations.

If you really want to protect this in come way, see an IP lawyer to discuss all the details.

PLEASE READ THIS BEFORE YOU COMMENT, EMAIL ME OR PHONE ME. I'm only licensed in CA. This answer doesn't make me your lawyer, and neither do follow-up comments and/or emails and/or phone calls --- we need an actual agreement confirmed in writing before any attorney-client relationship is formed. Please don't expect me to respond to your follow-up queries. This answer doesn't constitute legal advice, and shouldn't be relied on, since each state has different laws, each situation is fact specific, and it is impossible to evaluate a legal problem without a comprehensive consultation and review of all the facts and documents at issue.


I agree with Pamela that if you are focused on protecting the "format" of the tea parties, copyright law may prove problematic for you. As Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act states, "[i]n no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." (For more on this, see my discussion at

With that said, some of the elements you describe may be protected by copyright, such as the exact words you use in the presentation. If someone were to put on a similar tea party for the public, and you sued them for copyright infringement, the court would have to sift through the copyrightable and uncopyrightable elements of your parties and THEN determine whether there is "substantial similarity" between your work and the defendant's. (For an example of an infringement case in which a court did this sort of filtering with an allegedly infringed "system" -- rather than a purely expressive work -- see In general, the closer your party is to a dramatic performance rather than an instructional session, the more sympathetic a judge (and copyright protection, in general) will be.

As noted in the linked case, if the Copyright Office does issue a certificate of registration for whatever you filed, this serves as "prima facie" evidence of the validity of your copyright -- in other words, the initial burden will be on an alleged infringer to challenge the validity of your copyright. But as this same case illustrates, this burden-shifting may not mean all that much if the your infringement case truly hinges on the "format" of your parties rather than the specific "expression" of your ideas.

In short, situations like this call for a very fact-specific analysis. I would echo Pamela's suggestion that you consult an IP attorney if you are serious about protecting your creation through all possible means.

This answer does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on in place of a consultation with an attorney. No attorney-client, contractual, or fiduciary relationship has been formed as a result of this post or anyone's use of it. The only manner in which an attorney-client relationship can be formed with Charles Colman Law, PLLC, is via a countersigned letter of engagement on CCL letterhead. Charles Colman is only admitted to practice law in New York State, and before New York federal district courts. Although he endeavors to answer all Avvo questions knowledgeably, he cannot and does not provide any guarantees as to the thoroughness or accuracy of his responses.


Q: "Does this protect me from someone stealing my unique format and using it to make money?"

R: NO. Period, no discussion. Y ou are, unfortunately for you, flat wrong when stating that "because I created [my tea party process], I own the copyright."

You've shared with the world an apparently nifty way to engage in a tea party. Well done, and thanks. But neither the conduct comprising the individual steps in that process nor the sum of those steps, in whatever order, (1) are protected by any copyrights in literary works that describe those steps or (2) are protectable under patent law.

As for copyright, it is the law that "[i]n no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." See 17 USC 102(b) at . So completely forget about the copyright in your "written presentation" as being a source of "protection" for your tea party process.

[Colleagues, I know that the Bikram Yoga folks claim that the copyright in a book that describes certain yoga positions and a particular sequence of those positions prevents all other yoga teachers from teaching those positions in that sequence in their yoga classes. But no court has ever passed on that silly claim and, in any event, the Bikram Yoga folks argue that summary judgment against them is inappropriate because the sequence of their chosen yoga positions is a copyright-protectable "choreography." So their claim has not been tested by trial. That's the closest situation I know about of someone claiming that copyright in a literary work covers a sequence of steps described in that work. But the steps of a tea party don't come close to being "choreography"].

Now, you could videotape the "dramatization in the presentation" of the "facts" that you include in your tea party experience. Create a Youtube page and upload that presentation for all the world to see. If someone faithfully and accurately publicly re-creates that presentation [say during one of their own tea parties] then you would have a colorable claim that that re-creation infringes the copyright in the audiovisual presentation you uploaded to Youtube. How far you'd get asserting that claim depends on lots of facts particular to that situation but nonetheless it's nearly cost-free and may help you stop a competitor.

As for patent law, in general, a method of accomplishing a particular task is patentable subject matter. But at the end of the process there must be a “useful, concrete and tangible result.” The satisfaction felt by a tea party participant does not qualify [even assuming ALL participants are satisfied]. You won't find a better layman-understandable description of method patent law anywhere other than Gene Quinn's blog. See .

So other than a videotape how do you retain your competitive advantage of offering the marketplace your particular tea party experience?

By branding your business. Come up with a catchy company name [protectable by trade name law] and a catchy slogan and logo [protectable by trademark law]. Properly register that trade name and those trademarks. Create a nifty looking website [the cumulative appearance of which can be protected by copyright law]. Register the copyright in that website appearance. Enter into non-solicitation, non-compete, and non-disclosure agreements with your employees and independent contractors [the terms of which need to deftly drafted to ensure that they're enforceable].

By offering the best tea party experience that can be had. Word gets around. And brand yourself -- create the impression that you are the go-to tea party person. Write articles. Hob nob. Become the expert. You can also hire a B or C list celebrity endorser. You could sponsor an event. In short, fill the niche.

The above is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.



Thank you! The reason for my questions is because friends of ours bought a Mansion and thought it would be great for tea parties...and asked me to do the teas there because they knew nothing about them and had never done one. One of the owners had been to 4 of my teas and loved the uniqueness of them. They had the building--I had the 8 years of experience and the clientele following. During one tea presentation I was giving, I noticed one of the owners writing down everything I was saying. The reason they wanted me was because of the unique way that I did these teas for 8 years and because they knew I would bring in the business. After they got my information from me, they "kicked me to the curb"--we don't need you anymore. Now the owner I "caught" writing down my presentation is using my exact wording at every tea, my special format, dramatization, table settings, and those who have been there are telling me it is just like I am there--they are using my "likeness" now. Other than them being unethical, is there any recourse I can now take? They are 10 minutes from me--this is a small community and "everyone" knows that this is my tea format they are using. Thank you.

Daniel Nathan Ballard

Daniel Nathan Ballard


These additional facts do change the analysis. But still many more facts are needed. For example, you and the house owner may have formed a default partnership by engaging in a business together to hold your tea parties. If so, continuing that business w/o you may be a violation of partnership law. So much depends on many facts that your own attorney will have to elicit from you. As a practical matter, the only real way to enforce whatever rights that you have [if any] is to file suit. And then negotiate. But that's quite expensive and that lawsuit is not likely one that an attorney will take on a contingency fee basis [where the attorney only gets paid if a settlement or judgment is entered]. So you'd have to pay the cost to litigate. Which may not make economic sense -- even you have a good case. Speak with your own attorney. Good luck.


In addition to considering the comments above which are helpful, you might explore another route in trying to protect aspects of your concept and that would fall under trademark protection.

If associated with the special tea, you were able to adopt a special name that would set you apart from likely copycats, that could help with drawing a line so to speak around your service. There is also the concept of "trade dress". Think of when you go into certain franchised restaurants, you don't need to know the name to know that you entered a particular establishment. Again, if tied to your overall concept was special trade dress which enhanced the experience of the attendees, that too might help to set you apart.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Please note that this comment does not constitute legal advice nor has an attorney-client relationship been created.The law may vary depending on the state in which you reside or the jurisdiction where the activity took place. This comment is intended only to give some direction in which to seek further guidance.

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