By Joe Sofer Esq.,  May 2018

Understanding the scope of architectural copyright is key to protecting the intellectual property of architects. There is no doubt that architects employ many expressive elements in designing building structures. However, because there are many functional and efficiency considerations that go into designing a building structure, claiming rights to an architectural design and assessing substantial similarity is not an easy task.

copyright protection for architectural plans

The Benefits Of Copyright Protection for Architectural Works

Although the right to an architectural copyright is vested with the architect or designer as soon as the work is created and fixed into a blueprint, site plan, renderings, elevations or computer designed engineering plans, it is imperative to register the work as soon as possible. Under the Copyright law, owners of architectural copyrights need a registration to have access to courts in the event that a third party infringes their work. The law also entitles the copyright owners with statutory damages from $30,000 to $150,000 (depending on the degree of innocent or willful infringement) per infringing work along with the attorney fees spent on prosecuting the infringement claim, provided the registration occurred prior to infringement. The law in the alternative entitles the copyright owner to infringer’s profits and/or copyright owner’s lost profits due to the infringing action. For an average residential structure selling for $500,000, the damages can exceed $100,000 per infringing house, assuming a 20% net profit. Thus, copyright protection for architectural works may have important financial ramifications.

How Copyright Protection Works For Architecture

Historically, architectural works were not protected under the Copyright Act, until Congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act in 1990. By doing so, Congress extended copyright protection to architectural works. The law applies to buildings and structures created after December 1, 1990. Congress defined Architectural Work as the “overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design.”  The Act specifically excludes “standard features common in architectural designs.” The Act also states that the right of the owner of the copyright is vested in the “design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.”

A typical architectural infringement claim consists of allegations of copying a combination of elements rather than any single unique portion of the structure.  In fact the Copyright Act recognizes that architectural works are compilations. Since most often, these elements are common, it is the combination and arrangement of these elements that form the unique expressions of a design idea.  For this reason, courts require an elevated showing of similarity between the copyrighted work and the alleged infringing work. Courts routinely make comprehensive lists of similarities and dissimilarities during the comparison process.  In the Architectural field, courts weigh the dissimilarities more heavily than the similarities. The underlying rationale is that there are only a finite number of ways a rectangle can be divided into bedrooms, baths, kitchen, living room, closets and so on. Furthermore, similarities resulting from regulatory requirements, budgetary constraints, or the need to fit in with existing structures should not be considered for purposes of substantial similarity.

Courts consider certain aspects of the design elements more importantly than others.  For example, individual room sizes are important. The more dissimilar the size of the rooms between the competing designs, the more likely that the Court will favor the defendant. The number and configuration of windows or skylights can be significant as well. Different juxtaposition of bathrooms and closets are also important factors. When floor plans are identical, the arrangement of rooms can be a significant factor in favor of the copyright owner. In one case, plaintiff prevailed in its copyright infringement action when it effectively demonstrated identity of floor plans by laying a transparency of one plan over the other. Placement of stair cases is another factor that courts routinely analyze. Similarity in wall angles is another significant feature for analysis.  

Protect Your Design: Copyright Your Architectural Works Today

Considering the inexpensive cost of registering the copyright for an architectural work, and in light of the significant damages that can be recovered in the event of an infringement, it is a worthwhile effort for architects to routinely register their copyrighted plans and blueprints. This can be easily accomplished online, by using the services provided by the CopyCatch team at www.copycatchlaw.com.