Copyright Law and House Plans
Did you know that house plans are protected under Federal Law as “architectural works” and can be copyrighted just like books, movies or songs? The U.S. Copyright Office defines an architectural work as: “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. Copyright protects architectural works created on or after December 1, 1990. Copyright also protects unconstructed architectural works embodied in unpublished plans or drawings on December 1, 1990, if the design was constructed on or before December 31, 2002.”
Many people, including professionals who have worked in the residential building and design industry for many years, assume house plans are “public domain” since they believe many homes are simply copies of previously designed homes. When searching for house plans on the internet it may seem that similar design trends exist from plan to plan- i.e. the layout and types of rooms, the overall style of a home, the design of specialty items like staircases and kitchens. However, even though there may be similarities in plans from one designer to another, it is still illegal to directly copy or make modifications to a plan designer’s work. This also includes reproducing or re-using a designer’s plan. Only with a specific license granted by the designer can a plan be used, modified, or reproduced.
Individual architects and designers may grant certain exceptions for the use of their plans but those exceptions must always be granted in writing by the copyright holder. Many designers may also allow homeowners, builders, subcontractors and others to make modifications to a copyrighted plan but this must also be expressly granted, in writing, by the copyright holder.
In addition, if you modify another designer’s copyrighted plan you may not be allowed to claim copyright in the new plan. Furthermore, the original copyright holder can claim copyright in the modified design but may not be held liable for defects in the modified design.
Lastly, it is also illegal to build multiple projects from one set of copyrighted plans without express written permission and, in many cases, a re-use fee. Many designers will allow prospective homeowners and builders to purchase multiple sets of a copyrighted plan for a fee.
It is not a defense to claim ignorance of copyright law. Any person who is a party to copyright infringement may be subject to penalties including the purchaser, designers, architects, homeowners, builders, blueprint services, developers and real estate agencies. Penalties can include actual damages caused by the infringement plus profits made by the infringer to include profits from the sale of a home built using copyrighted plans without a license. Copyright law allows for recovery of statutory damages which can be as high as $150,000.00 for each infringement. In addition, the infringer may be required to pay legal fees of the copyright holder in pursuing damages for copyright infringement.
In conclusion, respect the copyright of designers and architects for their architectural works and avoid potential exposure to legal issues later. For more information on the copyright of architectural works refer to:
“Copyright Basics for Home Designers and Publishers” by David Bennett, Coats & Bennett PLLC
“Copyright Law of the United States- Title 17 of U.S. Code”