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Architectural plans and buildings

Copying architectural plans without authorisation in the form of another plan or sketch, or in a building, is potentially an infringement of their copyright.

The differing status of architectural drawings over the years

Both the 1956 and 1988 Copyright Acts consider architectural drawings to be artistic works, and they are therefore given copyright protection as with other artistic works. Until then, architectural sketches, maps, charts and plans were regarded as literary works under the 1911 Copyright Act.

The infringement of copyright in architectural plans

Establishing the basis for a copyright infringement claim for architectural plans is not straightforward. Copyright is infringed by something, which, to the eye, is a copy of the original.

Where a plan has allegedly been copied in the form of a building (that is the making of a three dimensional representation of a two dimensional work), each case has to be considered individually.

It is usually held that where an architect’s plans show the elevation of a proposed building, and on comparing the elevation and a constructed building it is clear that one is a representation of the other, the building will be deemed a “reproduction in a material form” and, if unauthorised, an infringement of the plans’ copyright.

However, if an architect’s plans show floor plans or elevations which, when compared to the building, are not clearly the same or could only be shown to be so by dissecting and measuring the building, an infringement will not have occurred.

Copyright in buildings

Buildings themselves are generally regarded as artistic works.

Early legislation stated that a building had to show some artistic character or design (eg a work by Le Corbusier) to benefit from copyright protection. This is no longer required, but only original artistic features are protected, not functional ones such as the methods or processes of construction.

In the UK, the following acts do not infringe the copyright in a building:

  1. making a graphic work representing it
  2. taking a photograph or filming it
  3. broadcasting or including in a cable programme service a visual image of it

The copyright in a building may be infringed by copying the building as a whole, or constructing another building which incorporates any of the original artistic features protected by copyright.

It is difficult to show infringement in simple buildings, and common features such as the number of doors and windows cannot be protected. An infringement claim might be valid where a simple building is slavishly copied to the smallest detail, however.

Who owns the architectural plans

On the whole, architectural plans become the property of the client for whom the work is being done. This only applies to the sheets of paper and sketches themselves, however. It does not grant copyright ownership to the client.

There may be an implied, if not express, licence to use the plans, but the scope of this will be determined by an agreement or contract.

Who owns the copyright in a building

The architect who draws the architectural plans is the first owner of copyright in the plans and the building created from them, unless there is agreement to the contrary or they were created during the course of employment.

Builders only become the copyright owners if they draw their own plans, deviate dramatically from the architect’s plans or do not refer to plans at all.

Architects’ moral rights

The Paternity Right (Buildings created after 1.8.89)

The architect has the right to be identified on a building, or if a series of buildings on the first constructed. The architect also has the right to be identified on graphic works or photographs representing the building issued to the public. This right needs to be asserted.

The Right Of Integrity

Subject to any waivers of licences that may have been granted, architectural plans as artistic works also attract a moral right protection for the creator to object to a derogatory treatment if that treatment is published commercially or exhibited in public or included in the broadcast or cable programme or is included in a film which is shown in public or issued to the public.

In the case of a work of architecture in the form of a model for a building or a sculpture or a work of artistic craftsmanship, the right of integrity only applies only applies to the issuing to the public of a graphic work or photograph which depicts the derogatory treatment of the work.

The right does not apply to a work of architecture in the form of a building. However, where the creator of such a building is identified as such and the building is subject to a derogatory treatment, the creator has the right to require that the identification be removed.


The content of this article is not intended to be applied to individual circumstances. It is not legal advice, and is not a substitute for independent legal advice.

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