An Introduction to Copyright Law for Architects

09/19/2014 by Attorney J. Brandon Sieg

Authored by attorney J. Brandon Sieg

Architects are afforded copyright protection for their work, but what is the scope of your protection?  Courts are still wrestling with this question, and the answer will vary depending on the nature of your project.

Historically there was little protection beyond physical copying of an architect’s drawings.  In 1990, Congress expanded this protection to include “architectural works,” which encompass the completed building and tangible representations of the design.  Even a presentation model could be sufficient to establish your copyright in the design.

Notwithstanding this expansion in the law, only certain aspects of your design are entitled to protection.  For example, copyright law does not protect ideas, which likely include general styles of architecture.  Copyright law does, however, protect the expression of ideas, such as your unique application of that style.

There is another twist to this logic: the more your design decisions are constrained by issues such as building codes, the existing structure in a renovation design, fidelity to a defined style (such as the Georgian style’s strict reliance on symmetry, proportion, the classical orders, and palette of materials), a neighborhood’s style guidelines, or other practical restrictions, the harder it will be to prove a copyright infringement case.  You will not be permitted to prevent other architects from responding similarly to the same constraints on a different project if there are few practical design solutions.

Congress also provided a statutory exclusion from copyright protection for standard elements, including windows and doors.  This exclusion can be analogized to a general principal of contract law that you cannot copyright “useful articles.”  Because Congress recognized that architectural works will often include purely functional characteristics, this statutory exclusion was adopted to avoid the complex analysis of useful articles that governs other areas of copyright law.

Your copyright protection also does not prevent other people from photographing the building.  You likely have independent copyright protection in your own photographs, but people on the street are free to take photographs as long as they are standing in a public place.

Finally, building owners are allowed to modify and demolish the building notwithstanding your valid copyright.

All of this is to say that copyright law focuses on an architect’s creative selection and arrangement of unprotectable elements into an original, unified whole.  To the extent someone else copies this creative aspect of your design,  you may have a case of copyright infringement.

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