By Bruce Jervis
Copyright protection for architectural works is a relatively new concept. In 1990, Congress expanded the federal copyright statutes to include “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression.” The law expressly covers “the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design.” However, the law expressly excludes from protection “individual standard features.”
Courts have grappled with the distinction between design feature and design composition. A couple of opinions have referred to composition as “the total concept and feel of the works.” If the concept is intrinsically similar to a copyrighted work, there is infringement.
In a recent case, one architectural firm had possession of another firm’s copyrighted floor plans when it designed a building with many of the same design elements. The copyright holder could not recover for infringement, however, because there was insufficient evidence that the arrangement or composition of the elements was intrinsically similar.
What is the appropriate scope of copyright protection for architectural works? Should anyone actually “own” a design composition? Or is proprietorship an appropriate award for originality? Does proprietorship encourage future creativity or stifle it? Your comments are welcomed.