How to Copyright a Building

How to Copyright a Building

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

Original building designs created in any tangible medium of expression can receive copyright protection as architectural works.

  • Copyright protection is available for building designs created on or after December 1, 1990. 
  • Copyright protection is also available for unpublished building designs created before December 1, 1990 if the building was constructed after December 1, 1990 but before January 1, 2003. 
  • A building design is “created” when it is first tangibly fixed in any medium, including a drawing, design, model or constructed building.
  • An architectural copyright is different from a copyright in an architectural blueprint. Blueprints are separately copyrightable as pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.

Types of Architecture that Can Be Copyrighted

Copyright protection for architectural works extends only to designs for “buildings.” To be considered a “building,” a structure must be habitable by humans and intended to be permanent and stationery. Copyrightable buildings include the following:

  • Homes
  • Office Buildings
  • Churches
  • Museums
  • Gazebos and garden pavilions

Copyright protection is not available for structures that are not considered “buildings” because they are either not permanent or stationary or not habitable by humans. Noncopyrightable structures include:

  • Bridges
  • Dams
  • Walkways
  • Tents
  • Mobile Homes 
  • Recreational Vehicles
  • Boats

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

A building is copyrighted as soon as it has been created and fixed in a tangible object such as architectural plans, a model or a completed building. It does not need to be registered with the copyright office to receive copyright protection.

Rights Conferred by Copyright

In general, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies of a work, to sell or distribute copies, to prepare derivative works and to publicly display the work. A copyright in an architectural work protects the overall form of a building as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and design elements. Copyright does not protect standard features or design elements that are functionally required, such as doors and windows.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are several advantages to registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, including the following: 

  • Registration creates a record of your copyright ownership.
  • You must register your copyright before you can sue someone for copyright infringement
  • If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, you can recover statutory damages and attorneys fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit. Statutory damages are awarded per work infringed and may be greater than the actual damages you are able to prove. 

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

A copyright registration application consists of three parts:

  • A completed application form. This may be submitted to the copyright office online or by mailing a paper application. Online applications cost less and are processed more quickly. 
  • A filing fee for online applications and a separate fee for paper applications.
  • A nonrefundable copy or copies of your work. The copyright office website has details on this requirement, but in general:
  • For all buildings, you must submit architectural drawings or blueprints that show the overall design of the building and any interior arrangements of spaces and design elements for which you are claiming copyright. 
  • If the building has been constructed, you must also submit photographs that clearly show the architectural work that is being registered.

When you're ready to register your copyright, LegalZoom will help you file the paperwork. Just get started by answering some questions about your creative work.