Who owns the blueprints?

Say you hire an architect. Over the course of a month you meet and discuss the expansive addition to your 1940s home.

You describe your vision. The architect offers two or three solutions. You decide that you want the solarium, French-doored balcony off the bedroom and curved walkway to the garage. The architect draws up the plans.

Then your company makes you the offer you’ve been waiting for. The only catch is you need to move to Chicago. You’re going to have to sell the house before the addition even gets built.

Good news! The real estate agent has an interested client. He requests that you leave the plans for potential buyers to use. After all, the plans come with the house, no?  

You paid for them, but whose plans are they?

Legally, those plans belong to the architect. It seems counterintuitive, but it is true. It doesn’t matter that you paid the architect and had influence over the design. Per FindLaw.com: “the architect retains ownership and significant control over the design documents.”

What does “copyright” mean?

Copyright means the right or permission to copy or duplicate. If you and an architect create a design for a cabin and you decide not to build that cabin, you cannot give those plans to your cousin Bob for him to use on his lake site. Not unless you have permission from the architect. The architect may say no. Or may request that she visit the site where the cabin is to be built (what if there is, say, a septic system right in the middle of the property?)

It is actually in your best interest to consult with the architect in this case. The plan, because it was made for a specific site, may not work for this new lake plot. The windows may not face the lake, or may look directly into the cabin next door. The original design may call for a basement  but a basement may not be feasible if the water table is too high in that area. There are many other considerations in this scenario.

An example of copyright

Let’s say you hire a watercolor artist to paint a picture of your garden. You pay her $250 for the painting. She signs it T. Enom. You love, love, love this painting. You  have T-shirts screen printed with the picture for the 15 women in your gardening club. Your daughter and your best friend also love the painting, so you get quality prints made of it for them. You even make small reproductions and sell them at your local craft fair as greeting cards.

Have you committed copyright infringement? You bet. Are there legal implications? Yes. Besides potentially ruining the relationship with the watercolor artist you can also be sued, and unless you had permission from the artist, or hired her to do the painting as a “work for hire” you will most certainly lose in court.

The loss could cost you a good deal of money. You will most likely receive an injunction against further infringement and all of the T-shirts and prints and cards will be collected or destroyed. You will be responsible for damages and profits and pay the artist’s attorney’s fees.  In short, the law views copyright infringement as an act of theft.

Whenever someone signs a creative work: a painting, sheet music, a sketch, a poem,  a photograph or portrait, or even a set of house plans, that person is viewed by the law as the creator of that work. Unless you have a special arrangement or agreement with the creator, that work is not owned by you and you do not have the right to “copy” it.  With a painting or photograph you can of course sell that one original piece, but you cannot “copy” it.

Which structure plans are protected under US Copyright Law?

Any building plans created after 1990 are protected. This means the copyright belongs to the architect.

Typical designs that are copyrighted and architect-owned include:

  • A house
  • A garage and/ or ADU
  • A playhouse
  • An office building
  • A church
  • A museum
  • Outdoor living areas including screened porches and gazebos

But not every structure’s design can be copyrighted. Many municipal use structures are not, these include:  

  • Dams
  • Tents
  • Mobile homes and recreational vehicles
  • Boats

What to do when you want to use the house plans you did not buy?

If you buy a home and know that an architect worked with the previous owner on a potential remodel or addition you will want to contact the architect. In some cases an architect will work with you on an hourly basis to make modifications to existing plans so that you are able to use them. Or you may be able to negotiate a fair price for you to use the plans. Bear in mind that plans for a new home, addition, garage or remodel do not “come with the house” or with the empty lot unless the architect has agreed. It’s unlikely that this is the case. Protect yourself and your relationships: reach out to the architect and ask.

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