Architectural Designs As Intellectual Property – All You Need To Know

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Creating an architectural design starts with an idea in the architect’s mind. But the end product is a complete plan. Like other creators such as musicians, sculptors, writers, and photographers, architects own copyrights to the designs they create.

This means another person cannot replicate it elsewhere. Even so, architectural design copyright is not as clear-cut as in other art forms. If you are in the construction industry, this guide highlights all you need to know about architectural designs as intellectual property.

What Is Protected?

In December of 1990, congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act, which provided copyright protections to original designers of all architectural designs, such as architectural drawings, plans, and buildings.

However, the act made some exemptions for bridges, mobile homes, clover leaves, dams, boats, walkways, and recreational vehicles. Also, configurations of spaces inside a building and fixtures like windows and doors are excluded.

Copyright protection for architects, like other artists, doesn’t run indefinitely. If the architectural designs were created on behalf of a client, the copyright protection runs for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. For personal designs, the protection runs up to 70 years after the creator’s death.

Copyright Violations

A photographer or a painter can reproduce and share images of any building as long as it is visible from a public space. However, there are limitations.

For example, if the image depicts a building created after 1990 and is not visible from a public space, such images would violate the architect’s copyright. The same applies if the photographer or painter took pictures or drew the building while they had illegally gained access to the building.

For architects, on the other hand, it would be a violation of copyright protections to reproduce the work of another creator anywhere else. Suppose an architect submits a plan similar to another architect’s work for approval by their local building authority, and the copyright owner gets wind of it. In that case, they can ask the court to stop the project.

The copyright owner may also sue for statutory damages. If convicted of intellectual property infringement, the defendant could face statutory damages of up to $150,000 for each structure built.

Copyrighting Your Designs

The original creator of an architectural design assumes copyright to their designs and can sue for infringement even when they do not have a copyright notice. However, registering the designs can ensure that you have an easier time filing an infringement of an intellectual property lawsuit.

The registration of copyright is not limited to architects and artists. Creators of other products may also need to register their designs too. The process of registration of an industrial design can be a bit challenging, so you may want to get the help of a lawyer to ensure you get it right.

It Doesn’t Have to Be a Replica

Somebody may make minor changes to a plan hoping to avoid infringing on the creator’s copyright, but this approach may not help much if it does not pass the court’s threshold.

Typically the court will apply one of two thresholds when determining if an architectural design infringes on another architect’s intellectual work.

The first test is the total look and feel. Under this test, the court looks at how an ordinary person would find the two buildings similar. If the court deems a building similar to another in the eyes of an ordinary person, the work can be ruled an infringement of intellectual property.

The second test, known as the filtration test, filters out every unoriginal part of the whole building and weighs them against the original without considering minor changes like door and window fixtures or moving walls a few feet. If the unoriginal work outweighs the original, the building can be ruled an infringement.