Most architects know that their drawings are protected by copyright. That’s sometimes the basis of contract sticking points (“Who owns the drawings?”) and the more tech-savvy know that limited copyright licenses can be used to limit the uses of BIM files by owners and contractors both as a method of retaining control over the process and as a limitation on the architect’s liability.
What gets less press - and this is true even in law school copyright classes, where the topic is only mentioned but not explored - is that buildings themselves enjoy a form of copyright protection.
Please note: This article applies in the US only. Other countries have different copyright laws. This is not legal advice, just a broad overview. If you need help with a legal question, contact a lawyer in your area.
Before the United States joined the Berne Convention (the international agreement on copyright protection, enacted in 1886 and joined by the US in 1988) there was no building copyright in the US except for purely ornamental works - structures that were sculpture only. The federal law that formally added copyright protection for other buildings was not enacted until 1990, and any buildings substantially completed or published before December 1, 1990, are not protected.
What Buildings Are Protected
Copyright protection now applies to buildings newer than December 1, 1990, that are capable of human occupation (e.g., houses, office buildings, even gazebos, but not monuments that lack roofs). Mobile structures - mobile homes, RVs, boats - are not protected by architectural works copyright, though they may have other forms of intellectual property protection. Modular structures assembled on-site can be protected.
What Features Are Protected
Copyright protection on buildings applies to those aspects of the design that are form, not function. In any design context, separating the two is difficult; if I ever write an extended article on the subject it will have to quote from Huxtable and Banham, feature interviews with theory professors and be unreadable by anybody without at least an M.Arch. The Congressional committee report references Michael Graves’ dichotomy between “internal” and “poetic” architectural languages. The internal is “determined by pragmatic, constructional, and technical requirements,” while the poetic is “responsive to issues external to the building, and incorporates the three-dimensional expression of the myths and rituals of society.” The report states that the intent of the law is protect the poetic language only.
In real-world terms, therefore, design decisions made for practical reasons are less likely to result in copyright protection than those made for aesthetic, cultural or dareI say whimsical reasons. (Yes, I admit, I have made design decisions for purely whimsical reasons.)
While “standard” features - e.g. a window from a catalog, a common wall assembly or a rectangular panel of fiber-cement board - are not copyrightable, creative combinations, configurations and combinations of otherwise standard items are.
What Is Infringement
A building can be accused of infringing another building’s copyright in the same ways that any other work can infringe, though most obvious and common would be actual copying or “substantial similarity” copying. The line between inspiration and copying can be fine and difficult to place.
In one famous case - which never made it to court and so never produced a legal precedent - recent architecture school graduate Thomas Shine accused architect David Childs of making the New York Freedom Tower a “substantially similar” copy of Shine’s student project. Had the case gone to court, Shine would have had to prove that Childs’ design was so similar that copying should be inferred, and that Childs had access to Shine’s design. The latter part could be proven by showing that Childs was a member of the jury that evaluated Shine’s project and that Childs had commented on the project. Childs responded that the similar elements were really industry standard and that the design was informed by the site and other unique factors.
The line between inspiration and copying is a distinction that would make many architects rightfully uncomfortable, because the practice of drawing on “precedent” studies is time-honored tradition in architecture, and perhaps this - together with the relative newness of architecture copyright - contributes to the relative scarcity of architectural copyright disputes, compared with more litigious fields such as software and music.
What Else Should I Know?
Too much to write here! It took me three law school classes and two co-op placements in the field to get a handle on copyright law. I’ll write more along these lines in upcoming posts continuing my discussion of BIM and the law and maybe one relating the recent Oracle v. Google case to architecture copyrights, but if you have any questions please email me at Andrew@AndrewLynnLaw.com.