Moving on, the question of how much protection Copyright grants a character the leading case is from 1930. As such, the case has been interpreted and modified over time, though this is still the basis of the law in regard to characters in Copyright. The case was Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930) and the opinion was written by Judge Learned Hand.
The Judge found the components of a copyrighted material are protected under the same standards as the whole. The plot, the characters, the music, and everything else is evaluated based on if the particular aspect was “copied’ or “plagiarized” directly. Additionally, Judge Learned Hand found “It follows that the less developed the characters the less they can be copyrighted; that is the penalty an author must bear for marking them too indistinctly.”
An example of this dichotomy can be found in the general description of a character. A dashing rogue with a fast ship and equally fast mouth is too general and too indistinct. However, a particular dashing rogue, with a fully fleshed backstory, motivations, with a specific ship is a highly developed character significantly protected by Copyright.
The issue is there is no protection for “stock figures” according to the Honorable Judge. The wise old man who introduces the hero to the journey. The hero herself. The comedic animal companions. The grunt whose entire purpose in life is to be defeated easily by the hero. These stock figures appear in innumerable Copyrighted works. There is little to no protection for these broad generalizations.
The idea is that Copyright protects expression, not ideas. The idea of a dashing hero or the anti-hero pirate exists out in the world. It is in the particular creation of depth and added characteristics a character starts to be protected. Think of the names of your favorite characters in fiction. They may broadly fit into an archetype or have overused character traits. Yet, there is something about them which is different and special. Does the character always have a sneer? Is the character driven by a unique or challenging backstory? These facts create not the background character, but a character of primary relevance. The expression of these primary characters is protected to a greater degree.
Telling a compelling story is difficult. There may be a drive to create interesting compelling characters for the story. Now, there is a legal reason to delve even deeper to create a special and unique character.