Who owns the copyright in architectural plans? Well, it depends. The answer to this question will require an analysis of U.S. Copyright Law and the facts surrounding the creation of those documents.
What is a copyright?
For starters, a copyright is a form of intellectual property protection provided by the laws of the United States. 17 USC §101, et. seq. Copyright protection is available for original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form, whether published or unpublished. The types of works that can protected by US copyright laws include books, music, paintings, films, photographs, plays, motion pictures, live performances, and architectural drawings / Project – Technical Specifications. Copyright protection in a work of art is not dependent upon any act of copyright registration with the United States Copyright office as protection exists in a work of art from the time the work of art is created. Copyright protection will begin at the time of creation of the work and in general, the copyright will last during the lifetime of the author plus seventy (70) years.
Copyrights are powerful rights as copyrights give artists/creators a monopoly to their works – or give authors certain rights that only the artist can exercise. For example, an author/creator of a work is the only one that can take certain actions, including:
- Make copies of the work;
- Make derivative works or revisions;
- Distribute or publish the work;
- Perform the work in public (if the work is a poem, song, play, or movie);
- Display the work in public (if the work is a painting, graphic, photo, sculpture, or other still-image work); and
- Perform the work in public by digital transmission (if the work is a sound recording).
To determine who owns the copyright in a set of architectural plans, one must understand how ownership is treated under US Copyright law. The default rules governing copyright ownership state that a copyright is owned by the author who created the work. 17 USC §201. However, if a work of authorship is created by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into one work, then the copyright will be owned by both authors.
Under the default ownership rules, with respect to a copyright in a set of architectural plans, the copyright will be owned by the individual that actually created the plans. And, if two architects worked together to create the plans, then the copyright to the plans will be owned jointly by both architects.
However, if a work is a “work made for hire” within the meaning of the Copyright Act, then the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for copyright purposes and is the initial owner of the copyright in the created work and owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them.
So with respect to a set of architectural plans for a construction project, who owns the copyrights to the plans? Under the default copyright laws, the architect will own the copyright to the plans. However, assuming that the arrangement between the owner of the project and the architect is a “work for hire arrangement,” then the owner of the project will own the copyright to the plans. Under such a scenario, the owner of the project will have the exclusive rights to make copies of the work, make derivative works or revisions, and distribute or publish the work. Thus, assuming there has been no license granted by the owner of the project governing use of the plans, the owner of the project can prohibit others from using the plans, such as the architect, the builder, subcontractors, or others.