What is and isn’t copyrightable?

A common industry misconception is that a building design must be  Frank  Lloyd  Wright-innovative  to  be  copyrightable.  Under the law, the level of detail and creativity required to be worthy of copyright protection is a relatively low bar; the standard benchmark is a mere dash of originality. That said, the sheer copyrightability of a building’s design does not mean every element is protected. In terms of copyright infringement two regularly recurring issues arise:

(1) What  design  mediums  and  features  are  protectable;  and,

(2) What is the extent of protection in the context of a copyright infringement claim.

What is and isn’t copyrightable?

Technical Drawings and the Design of a Physical Building Are Protected

Architectural and engineering plans and drawings have long been protected under the Copyright Act of 1976 as “technical drawings,” but  this  protection  did  not  prevent  others  from  replicating  a building  constructed  from  copyrighted  drawings.  More  to  the point, there was no copyright protection for the physical building, just  the  structure’s  technical  drawings.  The  Architectural  Works Copyright  Protection  Act  (“AWCPA”)  changed  all  that.  Now “humanly  habitable”  buildings,  as  well  as  the  underlying plans and drawings, are protected, creating two separate copyrights in a building’s design: one in the technical drawings and another in the architectural work.

Standard,   Functional   Design   Features   and   Commonplace Notions of their Arrangement are Unprotected Ideas

The  breadth  of  copyright  protection  available  for  any  particular design is primarily dictated by how many original, nonfunctional, and   purely   aesthetic   features   are   expressed.   Staple   building components,  such  as  windows  and  doors,  and  aspects  that  are required  by  design  are  not  protected;  nor  are  the  generalized notions  of  where  to  place  these  functional  elements.  Likewise, certain  market  expectations  for  homes  or  commercial  buildings and design parameters imposed by client demands, building codes, topography, pre-existing structures, or engineering necessity do not receive copyright protection.

Additionally, features that are hallmarks of a given architectural style are not protected by copyright. For example, the tall columns of  neoclassical  buildings,  the  symmetrical  front  façade  and accented doorway of colonial houses, and the steel framework of modern, high-rise office buildings are all recognized as standard design  characteristics  from  which  all  architects  are  allowed  to draw.

How much protection does a copyright provide?

While a copyright owner need not clear a high bar in order for an architectural work to qualify as original, the level of protection afforded a particular work is determined on a sliding scale as to the variety of ways to express the design. If there’s a wide range of  possible  choices,  then  copyright  protection  is  “broad,”  and only substantial similarities to the protectable aspects constitute an unlawful appropriation. Conversely, if the means of expression are limited, then copyright protection is “thin,” and a work must be virtually identical to infringe.

The unfortunate truth is that an architectural work’s interwoven mix of aesthetic elements and utilitarian aspects precludes any bright- line  standard  for  discerning  the  scope  of  copyright  protection afforded. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit aptly described the dilemma “some architectural designs, like that of a single-room log cabin, will consist solely of standard features arranged in standard ways; others, like the Guggenheim, will include standard features, but also present something entirely new.” Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Development, Inc., 754 F.3d 95, 103-104 (2nd Cir. 2014)