Copyright Issues and Architectural Drawings

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Are these original shop drawings protected by copyright law? May 19, 2004

A GC recently turned over a set of drawings (dated 1996) to us to bid a kitchen. On the drawings it says that if the user doesn't see a red stamp, to assume the documents have been illegally copied. Is it normal for GCs to copy drawings and pass them on? We work a great deal with CabinetVision software and I would be upset if I knew my drawings were being copied and re-distributed... The drawings list a phone number to call in order to verify the originality, but I'm not sure I want to place that call. The GC in question is a doof and in the past has gotten our bid and taken it to his usual guys to see if he can get a lower price. I'm certain he'll pull the same thing again. Should I call the architect and inquire about those drawings? Or do I just ignore this, do my bid for the guy, and call it good?

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor P:
Aren't there better things out there to worry about? Maybe the GC has the original and has copied them for bid purposes. Bid the job and move on!

From contributor T:
Don't worry about the red stamp. Copying the drawings is not illegal. It probably represents something that is close to what the GC wants to do. Give him a quote and make sure you note that the quote is per drawing provided by GC to cover future changes. Don't be so worried about being copied; it's done all the time. It just shows lack of originality if nothing else. At least you got a decent set of drawings to work from. That's more than most people get.

From contributor D:
Hey, wait a second! The drawings are intellectual property and the red stamp most certainly does matter. At the very least it matters if you think your intellectual property is as important as anyone else's. There are legal ramifications - though most likely unenforceable at this level - for being involved in what appears to be going on here. Depending on the conditions you let your CabinetVision drawings go out under, you can bet that someone has shopped them.

I have had GC's hand me someone else's plans for everything from a six-panel door to a quarter million dollar library. I handed them back, although it was painful. In my area it is not too unusual for one of my furniture proposals to get out. One or two guys I know will call me up and let me know that Ms Paint 'N Wallpaper is shopping my drawing to anyone with a pencil in their ear. Most have the integrity to hand back the drawing with a polite "return it to the shop that drew it..."

Integrity is the operative word here. Copyright does mean what it means. The objective is to get your shop to the level where you can easily smile and hand back the potential work and say no thanks. If they did it to someone else, they'll do it to you. How do you think this guy got to be a doof?

From the original questioner:
The GC in question also has the habit of dropping off blueprints or hand scribbled rough drawings without any specifics of the job in question. No basic information such as wood species, doors styles, finished end. He's either a complete idiot or he's intentionally trying to waste our time by having us call him to find out the needed basics. Do any of you get GCs that have someone drop off plans with little or no info to go on for specifics? I rarely deal with GCs, so I honestly don't know what's common or uncommon when dealing with them. In any event, I think I'll just make a very simple bid at an outrageous price and maybe that will be the last of him.

From contributor T:
When did we start copywriting utilitarian devices? I walked into a designers conference room for the first time about four months back and saw a picture of a project I did in 1985 hanging on her wall. I didn't like what I saw, but what am I supposed to do about it? There has been a lot of gray area on this issue over the years, but as I understand it there are still only two ways to copyright furniture. 1) It's an electrical device that happens to look like furniture and 2) It is made from a mold.

I deal with GCs all the time and yes, they are everything you say, but I'm into making money, not into giving culture lessons. They have the clients and they have the money. I wish things were perfect and everything was nice but it isn't. I learned early on from people who knew a lot more than me. I was 19 and I learned the Golden Rule. The man with the gold, rules.

From contributor W:
"Don't worry about the red stamp. Copying the drawings is not illegal."

Architectural drawings are most certainly copyrightable. There is plenty of legal precedent, and I would advise anyone to get written permission before making copies of drawings for anything other than personal use.

From contributor M:
It is not true that many architects copy design styles. Ikea designs come from period furniture. Regarding drawings, once a person pays for the plan, it is his/hers to do with what they want. I have even seen architects tweak a design idea they have seen before, and call it their original idea. So to say the architect owns the design, I think, is questionable.

From contributor D:
It is true that no one can copyright Georgian style - it is in the public domain. But they can do some research, pull elements of the style and put them together for their design and physical drawings of a Georgian styled building. Even if they do no research and just do some crazy sketches, it is covered under implied copyright and can be covered under specific copyright. If it can be shown that they lifted actual designs from other copyrighted material, then the lawsuits happen.

An attorney once explained it to me using a cookbook as an example. Change most of the recipes from a "pinch" of this to a "dash" of that, and you are home free. However, that does not enable you to copy the look, title, feel and/or style of the plagiarized book - only the recipes.

How much of this copy theft one does, or where one draws the line, is again a matter of personal integrity. If one continues to knowingly deal with the thieves, where does one become a thief? If it is reasonable to conduct one's business with professionalism, the answer is obvious. If financial gain is the primary goal, then the loss extends beyond just those dealing in theft.

I know I sound preachy on this, but I can't believe the discussion is two sided. Perhaps a thread on evading taxes or cheating employees would also get similar results?

From contributor R:
It's not clear to me from the original question if the drawings were from an architect or from another shop. If from an architect, I assume that the GC is bidding the job and has permission to make copies and distribute them for subcontractor bids. If they're from another shop, I assume that the GC is shopping a bid, but there are a variety of other explanations. We have frequently ended up looking at drawings done by a shop that went out of business or failed to perform in the middle of a project. I ask the contractor what the source of the drawings is and why we're involved - I want to know the background anyway. If the contractor is really unethical, or as much of a doofus as you say, I wouldn't try very hard to get the work. And I am wondering how many people are out there doing shop drawings before they have a contract, or better yet a deposit. I sure wouldn't.

From contributor M:
It is interesting how many lawsuits come out of these copied drawings. If one does have a copyright, is there considered something like a patent expire dated? I would tend to say no, because then there would have to be some type of patent number that would have to be traceable back to the original person or company. Then would you not have a problem of ownership? If said person worked for said firm and made the drawings himself, who would have ownership rights? If you split enough hairs, I think you would have a hard time proving anything.

From contributor W:
I'm not sure what part of "copyright" some participants don't understand. Architectural drawings are most certainly copyrightable. Whether or not a person chooses to abide by the copyright law(s) is up to the individual.

Think about it like this... if you copy an article from a magazine, and send it to a dozen of your friends, you are in violation of the copyright law. Will you get caught? Highly unlikely, but you still remain in violation of the law. Is it wrong? Sure it is... The ethical approach is to ask (and receive) permission before making the copies.

Contributor M posted:

"Then would you not have a problem of ownership? If said person worked for said firm and made the drawings himself, who would have ownership rights? If you split enough hairs, I think you would have a hard time proving anything."

Many, many companies require that employees (and/or subs) sign off on ownership. The companies that don't definitely run the risk of having problems if they don't have a policy in place. As for a hard time proving anything, that's what legal fees are all about (and probably why you don't see many small time operators being carted away in cuffs because of architectural related copyright violations ;)

I have to agree wholeheartedly with Dave S 's post:

"I can't believe the discussion is two sided. Perhaps a thread on evading taxes or cheating employees would also get similar results?"

From contributor T:
An architectural or engineer's seal is not a seal of ownership. An architect's or engineer's signature is not a copyright. A Library of Congress registration number is a copyright. When and where did you see this number? If you think that you can copyright the design of a piece of furniture, then I suggest you register it with the US Library of Congress and secure a copyright number so we can all see it. What does the client who hired the architect or engineer or cabinetmaker, in fact, the person who paid for the design, own? Can he register his property with the Library of Congress? The no competition clause is not worth the paper it is written on. And if using someone else's idea to build something is illegal, then we are all thieves. I'll say it again - there are only two ways to copyright a utilitarian design - as an electrical device or as a mold. Both items can be registered with the Library of Congress and then the copyright number and seal can be displayed with the name of the copyright owner. I am personally not into stealing, mostly because I don't have to, but I'm no fool either.

From contributor W:
My understanding is that there is no need to obtain a Library of Congress registration number in order for architectural drawings to be protected by the copyright law. That's not to say that a registration wouldn't help the cause in case of a dispute, but all indications are that registration is not required.

Below are two paragraphs from the Library of Congress's web page covering Copyright Claims in Architectural Works.

"An original design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings, is subject to copyright protection as an 'architectural work' under Section 102 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C., as amended on December 1, 1990. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design but does not include individual standard features or design elements that are functionally required.

"NOTE: A work is considered published when underlying plans, drawings, or other copies of the building design are distributed or made available to the general public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. Construction of a building does not itself constitute publication for purposes of registration, unless multiple copies are constructed."

From contributor M:
Thank you for the insight. The line of work I'm in does not deal with copyright issues, since the conservation world for the most part deals with items after the fact. I too hate items that are sold as the real thing and are not. It still is a sticky wicket to me when dealing with designs and copyright laws. People will go pretty far to pass off furniture as real period pieces, and I just shake about what a person will do for architect drawings.

From contributor L:
We never let anyone walk out our doors with any drawings without money. In my opinion, it is the only way to stop people from shopping your designs around. If they will pay what we charge for the drawings, we let them do what they will.

From contributor U:
I do just the opposite. I never charge clients for an initial design because I don't ever want there to be any question as to who owns the design. When I am done with a job, my client owns the piece. I own the design.

Regarding registration of copyright, this isn't necessary. You only have to mark the drawings or whatever with the notice "copyright Company name Date" for legal protection. As seen above, though, copyright (and patent) protection is only a license to sue. All enforcement is up to the copyright holder. At the level of a set of shop drawings, there is no enforcement. The real protection is to develop unique designs and the ability to build them at the best price, and to make your customer interactions so agreeable that the clients don't want to go anywhere else. Cheapskate customers who shop the designs - best be rid of them, they are more trouble than they are worth.

From contributor T:
A lot of designers just rip pages of designs out of magazines. I encourage my clients to do this - not that I copy the designs, but it does give me a very good idea of what the client likes and I design accordingly. Usually everyone is happy.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Drawings produced by architects are legally considered "instruments of service." Clients buy the architect's expertise and design services. They do not buy the rights to the design except by special contract. Drawings are never sold and the design remains the architect's intellectual property, automatically copyrighted under the law of most states. Separate filing and numbering is no longer required. The use of an architect's photocopied drawings for bidding on the project for which they were prepared is generally okay, but to use copied drawings from one project on another without the architect's knowledge has serious legal consequences.

Comment from contributor K:
I am an IP attorney and can confirm that architectural drawings are copyrightable. Utilitarian articles also may be copyrightable under certain conditions. A copyright registration is not required to have rights in a drawing; the copyright exists the moment the drawing is created. There are a number of cases where construction of a building was enjoined, i.e. stopped, in the middle of construction because the builder illegally copied the drawings. I can only guess the builders thought they could do what they wanted. Also, when you buy plans, the copyright owner may limit you to a set number of copies (stamped in red ink maybe) and limit you to the construction of one building with these plans. Of course, realistically you might need to make extra copies to complete a job, and while probably a violation, the risk is relatively low. However, each situation is different, and I am just pointing out you need to be careful, particularly if something doesn't smell right. As a general rule, when you cost a copyright holder money, you are much more likely to be sued. A more accurate golden rule is: the judge who rules can take your gold.

Comment from contributor J:
Many years ago I had a limited partnership with a GC who came to me saying that someone was interested in buying plans that I drew for a spec house that we had built together. He had the GC license and arranged the financing for the project, but I provided most of the conceptual design and all of the drawing of the plans and was therefore not willing to accept the 1/3 of sale price of the drawings that he offered me.

Since my partner had the contact, I had no knowledge of who made the offer or what the outcome was. A month or so later I asked him about the offer, and he told me the potential buyer decided against it. I became somewhat suspicious and immediately began the process of filing a copyright with the Library of Congress, which I eventually did. During my research of the process, I came to understand that as soon as the drawings were "graphically fixed," they carried an automatic copyright. I now put a copyright notice on all of my drawings and state that they "..may be used only with the express written permission of.." me.