Copying architectural plans for use as advertising material probably not fair use. RANIERI v. ADG

Copying architectural plans for use as advertising material probably not fair use. RANIERI v. ADG

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a new work of expression.  When an author, artist, musician or one of many other creative professionals creates a new work they are automatically  granted a copyright to their work.  A copyright can be registered in the United States to strengthen the rights associated with a copyright, however registration is not a prerequisite to the grant of copyright protection.  A copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and make derivative works based on the original.

Most people think copyright applies only to things like sculpture, music or movies.  Copyright law in the United States grants copyright protection to many other creative works of expression as well.   The Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and protects architectural works created on or after December 1, 1990.  An architectural work is the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.  The overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in an architectural design may be granted copyright protection.

The Copyright Office may register a claim to copyright in an architectural work if the work is a humanly habitable structure that is intended to be both permanent and stationary. Examples of works that satisfy this requirement include houses, office buildings, churches, and museums. Designs for things such as bridges, highway clover leaves, dams, walkways, tents, recreational vehicles, or boats cannot be registered as architectural works.

Individual standard features of the architectural work, such as windows, doors, or other staple building components are not eligible for copyright protection.  Similarly, purely functional features of an architectural work, such as innovations in architectural engineering, construction techniques, or the interior arrangement of furniture, lighting or paint, are not eligible for copyright protection.

Contractors or builders that receive architectural plans for a building must be mindful of the copyright which may be attached to those plans.  Physical possession of a set of plans does not negate an architect’s copyright.

DOMINICK RANIERI v. ADIRONDACK DEVELOPMENT GROUP LLC, 1:11-CV-1013 (N.D.N.Y. 2016) is an example of a case where the license to use architectural plans was pushed beyond its limits.

Plaintiff in this case was an architect. Plaintiff created a set of architectural plans fo Defendant.  The plans were licensed to the Defendant to build three different housing developments.  After the completion of the first housing development the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant fell apart.  Plaintiff revoked Defendant’s license to use the architectural plans.  Defendant gave the plans to a real estate agent to be used in the advertising material for the first housing development.   Plaintiff sued for copyright infringement and Defendant claimed its use was a fair use and motioned to dismiss the case.

The main question in this case was whether the unauthorized use of architectural plans in marketing material qualifies as a fair use.

The District Court reviewed the four fair use factors and determined that there was not enough evidence to support summary judgment for the Defendant. The court found that the purpose and character of the use weighed against fair use because Plaintiff’s drawings were merely copied and the primary motive in copying the drawings was for financial gain.  The nature of the work, also weighed against fair use because architectural works are generally considered creative works.  The court found that the amount of work used, weighed in favor of fair use because the Defendant only used the basic features of Plaintiff’s designs.  The court also found that Defendant’s actions did not negatively impact the market for Plaintiff’s work because it could be licensed to other developers.  Because the fair use factors did not clearly weigh in favor of fair use the court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

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