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  • Lorianna Kastrop

Electronic Architectural Drawings Are Copyright Protected

If you bought an artist’s painting, it would probably never occur to you to paint over it or alter it in any way. If you have the painting hanging in your home you are still not allowed to reproduce it, such as to send it out as a design on your Christmas cards. It is a copyright-protected work of art. Most people understand that intuitively. Unfortunately, people don’t have that intuition regarding architectural drawings.

The designs of a licensed architect are copyright protected. The copyright is established “upon creation” and extends to all of the following: works of literature, music, drama, pantomime, choreography, pictures, graphics, sculptures, motion pictures, audiovisuals, sound recordings, computer programs, web sites, and architectural works.

The U.S. Constitution establishes intellectual property rights in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 and includes the right to exclusive ownership and use of the creator, as well as the monetary rewards from giving others permission to use the invention or creative work. Clients pay the architect to create the intellectual work and the architect gives the client license for (usually) one-time use of that work in order to build.

Copyright protection also extends to alteration of the work. Therefore, it is against the law for architectural drawings to be altered by the client, or a drafter that the client has hired. Clients sometimes want to save money on changes, or to re-use the design at another site. Simply stated, if a client needs the architectural drawings to be changed, they must go back to the architect who signed the drawings to make the changes. They will undoubtedly be charged additional fees to do this.

We recently found out that a client of ours made changes to our drawings by a cut-and-paste method on his own drafting software and then actually cut our title block with our firm name and the architect’s name off of the original drawings, wrote in his own name as “architect”, and re-submitted them to the City for a permit. Fortunately, the City, knowing the law, returned them to the property owner and told him that the changes were required to be done by the licensed architect who created the drawings. When we saw what he had done we were as shocked as if he had broken in and robbed us. After all, architecture is how we make our living.

Electronic files of architectural drawings are copyright-protected. Now that more and more people have access to CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) software, this illegal tampering with files may become more pervasive. In the “olden days” before electronic documents, architects handed off “blueprints” of their design documents, not the original hand-drafted vellums. It is therefore no wonder that architects are not likely to allow anyone to have their CADD files, which could be altered without the architect’s knowledge. Instead, you can get copies of your plans that have been scanned into PDF, or other view-only format.

To stay out of trouble, simply go back to your architect and ask for whatever you need to have done, whether it is a modification to an existing drawing, or the re-use of a previously created design on another site. He or she will be happy to help you, and the fees charged will be very modest in comparison with the legal fees if you get caught and sued for copyright infringement.

Lorianna Kastrop Vice President The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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