Court Confirms Architectural Drawings Protected by Copyright

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Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of “original works of authorship” fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The U.S. Copyright Act identifies several categories of copyrightable works, including literary works, musical works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, and pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.

Architectural drawings, including blueprints, plans and drawings, have historically enjoyed copyright protection under the general category of “pictorial, graphic and sculptural works” in the U.S. Copyright Act. But architectural works, such as buildings and structures, were not protected under U.S. copyright law until 1990, when Congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA). This development led to an interesting question in a recent case—whether the AWCPA’s extension of copyright protection to architectural works impacted the protection that was afforded to architectural drawings.

Architectural Drawings After the AWCPA

In Scholz Design v. Sard Custom Homes, the plaintiff designed three architectural drawings of homes in the late 1980s. These drawings were copied and posted on various websites by the defendants, which led to a lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Connecticut.

The defendants argued, among other things, the drawings could not be protected as architectural works because they predate the enactment of the AWCPA, and they were conceptual in nature and did not contain sufficient detail from which a building could be constructed. The U.S. district court agreed, reasoning that “copyright protection extends to the component images of architectural designs to the extent that those images allow a copier to construct the protected design,” and therefore “the copied images do not fulfill the intrinsic function of an architectural plan and thus the act of copying them does not violate any right protected by a copyright for architectural technical drawings.”

The plaintiffs appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s decision and found that architectural drawings are entitled to copyright protection as “pictorial, graphic and sculptural works” despite enactment of the AWCPA. The Second Circuit explained the plaintiff was not claiming copyright infringement of an architectural work under the AWCPA, but was instead claiming infringement of the architectural drawings under the Copyright Act’s protection of pictorial works. It reasoned that drawings depicting the appearance of structures should not be treated differently from other pictorial works for copyright purposes. 

What this Means for Architects

The Second Circuit’s Scholz Design decision clarifies that the AWCPA’s extension of copyright protection to architectural works did not negatively impact the protection afforded to architectural drawings as “pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.” Accordingly, a person that creates an architectural work by depicting that work in plans or drawings may have two separate copyrights, one in the architectural work and another in the plans or drawings.

Builders, realtors and other interested parties will now have to negotiate and pay architects for use of these drawings before publicizing or publishing such works—which, when all is said and done, could mean quite a windfall for the original creators.