Copyright law protects the arrangement of words, but it does not protect ideas and it does not prevent “fair use” of copyrighted material. If you write a book about man’s inhumanity to man, you cannot sue someone else who writes a book with that same idea. “Fair use,” however, is often litigated, because people disagree about what is fair. Typically fair use allows short quotes or commentary about a work, so if I said author X can’t write a coherent sentence, and gave an example, author X could not sue me for violating his or her copyright.
A recent case in New York presented the most extreme example of fair use: Google’s book scanning project, in which it scans all the books it can find and makes them available for searching, with excerpts available to determine what the book is about. Former baseball pitcher, Jim Bouton, sued Google, claiming its excerpts violated the copyright for his book Ball Four, popular many years ago because it revealed some scandalous information about baseball players. He lost the case, however, and he and other authors are going to seek review by the United States Supreme Court.
The case is must reading for the fair use doctrine. You can read a more extensive summary of the case here; if you would like a copy of the opinion, get in touch with Brett Watson or Tom Patterson.
The case is Authors Guild v. Google Inc., 13-4829, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Manhattan)