Baker v. Selden

Following is the case brief for Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879)

Case Summary of Baker v. Selden:

  • Selden wrote a series of books on bookkeeping, which included forms to employ the bookkeeping system explained in the books.  Baker sold books with forms similar to Selden’s forms.
  • Selden’s estate sued Baker for copyright infringement.  The District Court found that Baker did infringe on Selden’s copyright.
  • On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court held that a copyright protects reproduction of the material in the book, but not the use of the system described in the book.

Baker v. Selden Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Charles Selden obtained a copyright to his book “Selden’s Condensed Ledger, or Bookkeeping Simplified,” and several other books on the same subject.  The books explained a particular system of bookkeeping.  They included forms that demonstrated how the bookkeeping system worked.

Baker, several years after Selden created his books, produced his own books on bookkeeping.  They contained forms similar to Selden’s.  Selden’s estate sued Baker for copyright infringement.

Procedural History:

Following a trial, the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Ohio found for Selden.  Baker appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issue and Holding:

Does the copyright of a book protect the art or system that is explained in the book, or the forms used to demonstrate that art or system?  No.


The judgment of the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Ohio is reversed and remanded to dismiss the lawsuit.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A copyright protects reproduction of the material in a person’s book, but does not exclude others from practicing what is described in the book.


A copyright for a book that explains an art or system, such as a bookkeeping system, protects only the manner in which the art or system is explained.  The copyright does not preclude others from employing the art or system described in the book.

The same is true of a book about drawing in perspective that uses pictures for examples.  The author’s copyright protects the explanation of how to do such drawing.  However, the art of drawing in the manner described by the author is not protected by a copyright.  Rather, protection of a novel art or system is protected by a patent.

Accordingly, protecting the forms in Selden’s book would be as if the forms were under patent.  That is not the case.  The copyright does not secure the exclusive right to use the forms from the book.


Baker v. Selden is a leading Supreme Court case on copyright protection.  It provides a helpful distinction between expression, which is protected by copyright; and the use of a certain art, which is protected by patent.

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