Architectural drawings are not entitled to a great deal of protection
under the United
States copyright laws, but to the extent a drawing contains a
creative, original combination or arrangement of spaces and design
elements, the work will be entitled to some level of copyright
protection against acts of infringement.
In a recent Virginia case, Commonwealth Architects sued Rule Joy Trammell + Rubio,
LLC ("Rule Joy") in the Eastern District of Virginia,
claiming that Rule Joy infringed its copyright in certain architectural
drawings by scanning them to PDF format. Rule Joy moved for summary judgment, taking the position that
Commonwealth Architects did own any valid copyright in the architectural
drawings and that, even if it did, Rule Joy did not copy any protected
elements of the drawings. Judge Henry E. Hudson, relying primarily on
Intervest Constr., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc., 554 F.3d
914 (11th Cir. 2008), held that Commonwealth Architects owned "a
thin, but valid, copyright" in its architectural drawings, and denied
Rule Joy's motion.
Under the Copyright Act, protected works of authorship include, among
other things, "architectural works" under 17
U.S.C. § 102(a)(8). Architectural works are defined as "the design
of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans or drawings. The work includes the overall
form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements
in the design, but does not include individual standard features," such
as common windows or doors or standard space configurations. The court
noted that while individual standard features are not copyrightable, an
architect's original combination or arrangement of such elements
involves a degree of creativity and may very well be copyrightable.
Still, the court compared the copyright protection affordable to
architectural works to "compilations" and described the level of
protection as "necessarily thin."
The court treated the architectural drawings at issue as "derivative works" because they adapted and
transformed preexisting hotel drawings into into a "new" design that
added apartment living and retail space while retaining the look and
feel of the original. Derivative works, like architectural works in
general, receive only thin protection in that only the original material
contributed by the new author receives copyright protection.
This thin level of protection, however, was sufficient to enable
Commonwealth Architects to survive summary judgment, as a reasonable
jury could find that Rule Joy's scanning of the drawings to PDF
of copyright. The court noted that while much of the drawings may
be undeserving of protection, Rule Joy failed to demonstrate, as a
matter of law, that every single design choice was unprotectable.
"Commonwealth's drawings contain protected expression, albeit thin and
constrained," the court held.
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