Billy Joel was recently sued for copyright infringement when he terminated the contractor he hired to perform renovations to his Oyster Bay mansion and hired a new one to carry out the job instead.
Although what typically comes to mind when one thinks of copyright protection is songs, books, and movies, the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990 extends copyright protection to architectural works, which can include blueprints or construction drawings. An “architectural work” is defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.” 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,” such as windows, doors, or other staple building components.
In other words, you cannot copyright an idea, just the expression of the idea.
Generally, copyrights in works initially belong to the creator the moment the work comes into existence, although exceptions exist. One exception to the premise that a copyright vests in the original person who creates the work is a “work made for hire.” Works made for hire include works prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment and works specially commissioned if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.
Where does that leave the ownership of your commissioned architectural plans for your dream house or renovation? This is one of the most disputed copyright issues in the construction industry.
The best way to acquire ownership of architectural plans prepared for you by an independent architect is through a written assignment in your agreement with your architect. A verbal assignment will not be sufficient under the Copyright Act.
Beware: If there is no language specific to the ownership and use of the architectural plans in your agreement, the copyright laws will apply and the architect you hired may own “your” dream plans.