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Copyright infringement of building or house plans

Can I get a copyright in house plans or building plans?

The short answer to this question is yes.  However, the copyright only extends to those elements of the buildings plans that are original.  Determining what is an original element can be a complicated legal question.  While a

What is copyright infringement of a house plan or building plan?

In order to prove copyright infringement, the copyright owner must prove that the accused copied the protected elements of the copyrighted work.  Any copying of non-original material or material that is in the public domain is not included in copyright infringement.  To determine copyright infringement, a court or jury determines if the two works are substantially similar and thus if there was wrongful copying of the copyrighted work.  The test for substantial similarity, according to one court, is whether “the ordinary observer, unless he set out to detect the disparities, would be disposed to overlook them, and regard their aesthetic appeal as the same.”

The amount of protectable elements in a building plan or house plan typically depends on how original or complex that building plan or house plan is.  For example, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City would be considered a complex architectural work.  However it is substantially more difficult to find protectable elements in the house plans for a middle class home in what is considered a “cookie cutter subdivision.”  Further, the more unique a house plan is the easier it is to prove wrongful copying whereas the less unique and/or more generic a house plan is, the harder it is to prove wrongful copying.

For example, in Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Dev., Inc., the Second Circuit court of appeals noted that generalized notions of where to place functional elements, how to route the flow of traffic, and … methods of construction” are un-protectable. Architects cannot claim that good engineering is original to them—or at least can get no copyright protection for it and there is no copyright in a building plan’s design parameters. Constraints placed on an architect by the way her client plans to use the building do not originate with the architect.  The Second Circuit went on to hold that the architect can get no credit for putting a closet in every bedroom, a fireplace in the middle of an exterior wall, and kitchen counters against the kitchen walls. Furthermore, the overall footprint of the house and the size of the rooms are “design parameters” dictated by consumer preferences and the lot the house will occupy, not the architect.  Similarly features that are features of all homes of a certain style are not copyrightable.

The attorneys at Shaver & Swanson, LLP have handled numerous cases involving allegations of copyright infringement of house plans and/or building plans for both Plaintiffs and Defendants.  If you have any questions regarding copyrights in house plans and/or building plans, please do not hesitate to contact us.