Copyright Issues for Online Design
by Stan G. Guidera, AIA, and Andrew Beckerman-Rodau
[Originally published in AIArchitect February/1999]
As new software tools continue to make it easy to place CAD files on the Web,
many design firms are using Web sites as online galleries featuring project
photographs and renderings to promote services. Some architects might be
concerned, however, about making their work so widely available in a digital
format, because most images placed on the Web can be downloaded with a
right-click of the mouse. While copyright laws are intended to provide
protection for original works, including works of architecture, the legal issues
surrounding copyrights for design work can he incredibly complex when digital
images and the Internet are added to the mix.
Although the legal issues regarding copyrights on the Web are rapidly
evolving, many experts view existing law as inadequate protection for digitally
transmitted works. According to April Major, director of operations for the
Villanova Center for lnformation Law and Policy, "applying well-established
legal doctrine to the National Information Infrastructure can be like forcing a
square peg into a round hole."
Architectural works are covered
The Copyright Act of 1976 extended copyright protection to original work
"fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from
which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either
directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Architectural works were
specifically included by the Judicial Improvement Act of 1990, which revised
U.S. copyright law to bring it into compliance with international agreements.
The work must be original, and it must be embodied in a tangible medium of
expression, such as a building, plans, or drawings.
Original images, text, or other content available on the Internet is
considered fixed in a "tangible medium" because it is stored on a computer hard
drive. According to a recent article in the New York Law Journal, under
existing copyright law "a work accessible via the Web or any other digital
network is 'fixed' by virtue of its embodiment in computer code stored on a file
server, from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated."
Original architectural work displayed on the Internet would be protected under
What can an architect do?
Despite the seeming clarity of the legal language, architects should not
assume that copyright law prevents all unauthorized third-party use of their
copyrighted works. It can be argued that when you place a copyrighted work on
the Web and allow it to be downloaded, the implication is that you are allowing
third parties to create and own a copy of the work. Additionally, the "fair use"
doctrine allows the use of copyrighted works without permission of the copyright
owner under certain circumstances. Architectural copyrights are further
complicated by the public nature of architecture. This issue was addressed by
the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act, which prevents copyright
owners from limiting pictorial representations of buildings constructed in a
To help secure copyright protection for work that is made available
electronically, experts recommend attaching copyright management information and
terms and conditions of use to digital information. In other words, a proper
copyright notice can provide additional protection. Typically, this would
contain three elements:1) Copyright, Copr., or ©
2) The name of the copyright owner
3) The year of first publication of the work.
The notice should also include the phrase All rights reserved, which
provides international protection under certain international
Consider also formal registration: For a $20 application fee, architectural
works can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office provided the project
meets the parameters defined in Section 102 of the copyright law. (See Form VA,
Circular 41, available online from the U.S. Copyright Office,
http://lcweb.Ioc.gov/copyright/reg.html) Additionally, the AIA
owner-architect agreements specify that construction documents and copyright
ownership are retained by the architect.
Several new legislative initiatives about online copyright issues are under
consideration. Consult an attorney to assist with initial registrations and to
review your firm's copyright procedures to ensure that your practices are up to
Stan G. Guidera, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant
professor of architecture and environmental design, College of Technology,
Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Coauthor Andrew Beckerman-Rodau,
email@example.com, is a former professor of law at Ohio Northern
University, Pettit College of Law; he is currently a professor of law at Suffolk
University Law School in Boston, MA.
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