“Fixed in a tangible medium of expression” is one of the requirements for receiving copyright protection for a work under the Copyright Act in 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). In order to apply for copyright protection, a work must fulfill all the requirements of being fixed in a tangible medium of expression which has different elements that may be confusing for different types of works.
A work first must be in a tangible medium of expression which generally means the work can be communicated to others whether through visual or audio means. The main concern this part of the statute attempts to control is preventing ideas themselves from being copyrightable, instead requiring the idea to be expressed in a way that others can visually or audibly understand. On a practical level, it would be virtually impossible for the government to manage a copyright for an idea in someone’s head, and copyright exists to prevent others from copying the work of others, which they cannot do if the work remains uncommunicated. Once a work has been expressed such as through a book or film, the work has been expressed.
The second part of this requires that the medium of expression be fixed. This part emphasizes the need for the tangible medium to be in a form that is accessible by others, meaning the work must be put into a physical medium. The most famous example of this test involves a live television program. The live viewing itself, while being a tangible medium of expression, is a one time thing that, unless recorded, could not be properly referenced in the future regarding what occurred in the program. If the television company records the program, then the recording can be copied by others in a harmful way, and they can also be referenced by a court for example to see if the copyright actually was infringed upon.
Most works attempting to receive copyright protection easily fulfill these requirements as people typically know what can be copyrighted from daily interaction with written and digital copyrighted works. However, as technology changes, new types of copyrights are stretching the boundaries of these requirements and posing new challenges such as artificial intelligence.
[Last updated in February of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]