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Architects and Engineers: What Can They Copyright and Protect?


When an architect creates a design, who owns the rights to that work? Who has the copyright on that design?

These are typical questions from architectural professionals, especially those working for large architectural firms. Does the architect own the copyright or does the firm own it? The answer is, “It depends.”

Intellectual Property Law 101

Intellectual property is property that exists as an idea rather than as a physical thing. Most intellectual property is recorded in such a way that others can express and exploit that idea.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property, as are trademarks, patents, and trade secrets. Copyrights are a creator’s exclusive set of rights to the expression of an idea in tangible media. The resulting media is often referred to as “a work.” Architectural and engineering drawings, photographs, and other original works can be covered by copyright.

The set of rights copyright ownership of a work bestows is as follows:

  • The right to reproduce the work
  • The right to create derivative work
  • The right to distribute those work
  • The right to publicly display the work
  • The right of digital transmission of the work

When an architect produces an original work, who owns the copyright? While the Copyright Act of 1976 states “…copyright ownership vests initially in the author or authors of the work,” if the work is produced for hire, the copyright devolves to the entity that did the hiring. In many cases, the copyrights of works created by employees belong to the employer.

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