How to Copyright Technical Drawings

How to Copyright Technical Drawings

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

Blueprints and technical drawings are entitled to copyright protection as pictorial, graphic or sculptural works.  Blueprints and technical drawings must meet two standards to be eligible for copyright protection:

  • They must be the author’s original work.  This also means that they must show some minimal amount of creativity.  
  • They must be fixed in a tangible object, such as paper or a digital medium.  You cannot copyright a design idea or concept.
  • Blueprints and technical drawings do not have to be “artistic” as long as they show the required amount of creativity. 
  • Architectural blueprints are copyrightable separately from the architectural works they depict.  Only permanent buildings built after December 1, 1990 and habitable by humans are entitled to copyright protection as architectural works, but blueprints can be copyrighted for a much wider range of structures. 

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

A technical drawing or blueprint is copyrighted as soon as it has been created and fixed in a tangible object.  It does not need to be registered with the copyright office, nor does it need to include a copyright notice to receive copyright protection.

Rights Conferred by Copyright

The owner of a copyright to a blueprint or technical drawing has the exclusive right to make copies, sell or distribute copies, to prepare derivative works and to publicly display the work.  

Copyright Ownership and Works for Hire

In general, the person who creates architectural or technical drawings owns the copyright to those drawings.  An exception exists for “works made for hire.”

  • If you create an architectural or technical drawing as part of your regular job, such as a drawing created by an employee of an engineering firm, your employer owns the copyright to your drawing.
  • If you create a drawing for someone else on a project basis, such as a house plan created by a self-employed architect, you own the copyright to your drawing unless you assign the copyright to your client in writing.  Without a written assignment, your client simply has a license to use the plans and you retain the right to reproduce them, sell them and create other works based on them.

Types of Technical Drawings that Can Be Copyrighted

  • Architectural drawings or blueprints
  • Technical or mechanical drawings
  • Diagrams

Copyright Protection Distinguished from Patent Protection

Copyright protects an author’s creative expression, or the way an idea or concept is communicated.  It does not protect ideas or concepts that have not been expressed in some tangible way.  Copyright also does not extend to useful articles – only to the creative elements in those articles.  Patents protect inventions.   Thus a design concept or useful article may be eligible for a patent where it would not be eligible for copyright protection.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

You don’t have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive copyright protection.  However, registration has several important advantages:

  • 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 if you sue someone for copyright infringement.  You can receive statutory damages without having to prove the amount of your actual monetary injury.  

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

To register a copyright, you must deposit three things with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • A completed application form.  This may be done online or by mailing a paper application.  Online applications have faster processing times and lower fees.
  • A filing fee of $35 for online applications and $65 for paper applications.
  • A copy or copies of your work.  These will not be returned to you. The copyright office website has details about the number and type of copies you must submit for various blueprints and technical drawings.

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.