Building by Design: Copyrighted Architectural Works and the Implications on the Construction Industry

Marking an important change in U.S. intellectual property law and the construction industry, on December 1, 1990, President George  H.  W.  Bush  signed  into  law  the  Architectural  Works Copyright    Protection   Act    (“AWCPA”),    extending    federal copyright  protection  to architectural  works.  Specifically,  the AWCPA protects the nonfunctional, artistic features of original architectural designs represented in virtually any form, including plans,  drawings,  and buildings  themselves.  In  the  twenty-five years  since  its  enactment,  courts  have  sought to  interpret  and construction  and  design  professionals  have  grappled  with  the AWCPA’s broad subject matter, most notably on the consequences of copyright ownership of an architectural design.

This may be a shock to many owner-developers, but paying for architectural  plans  and/or  owning the  building  embodying  the design conveys no automatic ownership right to the copyright in the design documents or even the design of the building owed. If the contract does not state otherwise or no written agreement to  the  contrary  is  executed,  the  original  architect  or  designer retains  ownership  of  the  copyrights  and  the  purchaser  merely obtains a non-exclusive license to use the plans for that particular construction project. The copyright owner and the project owner are not synonymous terms.

With a handful of exceptions, this result carries with it a number of  lasting  implications  as to  an  owner’s  and  even  general contractor’s  right  to  use,  and  potential  infringement  of the copyright  in  a  project  or  building’s  design.  Additionally,  it  is crucial for architects, engineers, and other design professionals to  understand  the  scope  of  copyright  protection  when  filing copyright applications, deciding whether to incorporate a feature from another design, or litigating a lawsuit for infringement.

To provide a more thorough examination of these issues, future newsletters  and  circulated articles  will  address  the  host  of considerations  that  copyright  protection  of architectural  works generates. Over the next several months, look for publications on the following topics:

  • The design elements and types protected by copyright and the breadth of copyright protection for any particular design.
  • How the  major  AIA  forms  of  owner-architect  agreements address   the   use   and ownership   of   copyright   to   design documents.
  • Practical suggestions   for   negotiating   contract   terms   and conditions pertaining to the copyright to design work.
  • The copyright implications of regenerating building plans for the purposes of a building addition or renovation, particularly when  Building  Information  Modeling  (BIM)  programs  are used.
  • What courts  consider  in  determining  if  a  building  design is  an  infringement  of another  and  tips  to  help  construction professionals protect themselves from architectural copyright disputes.
  • Vicarious copyright infringement as it pertains to various third parties, such as project lenders and financiers.