What Constitutes Copyright Infringement?

In order to answer that question, it must be clear what, exactly, a copyright is.

copyright symbolCopyright protects “original works of authorship” fixed in a tangible medium.  This protection is available for both published and unpublished works.

Copyright protection exists from the moment a work is created in fixed form. It is automatic. No registration is required, although there are important advantages to registration.

When someone reproduces, distributes performs, publicly displays or makes a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner, infringement has occurred. Often, there is confusion around the interpretation of what is and is not protected under US copyright law.

Consider the case of architect, James Zalewski who felt his copyrighted designs for Colonial-style homes were infringed when companies he had previously licensed his drawings to, had expired.

Court Upholds Ruling of No Copyright Infringement for Architect’s Drawings

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s ruling that a New York architect did not have his copyright infringed when companies he licensed his drawings to, and their contractors, built houses based on his designs after the licenses expired.
In the 1990s, plaintiff James Zalewski was self-employed as an architect.  He granted defendants TP Builders and Cillis Builders licenses to use several of his designs for Colonial-style homes.
According to Zalewski, the defendants continued to build homes using his designs, or based on his designs, after his license to them expired and without his consent.
architectural drawings
Zalewski sued in federal court for infringement of his copyright in his original designs.  He claims that the defendants copied “the overall size, shape, and silhouette of his designs as well as the placement of rooms, windows, doors, closets, stairs, and other architectural features.”
He also claimed that defendants violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits, among other things, “intentionally remov[ing] or alter[ing] any copyright management information.”
The trial court eventually partially dismissed his complaint, and Zalewski appealed.
The Second Circuit noted that architectural works are protected under US copyright law.
The court noted that:

A fundamental rule of copyright law is that it protects only “original works of authorship,” those aspects of the work that originate with the author himself. [cite]  Everything else in the work, the history it describes, the facts it mentions, and the ideas it embraces, are in the public domain free for others to draw upon. It is the peculiar expressions of that history, those facts, and those ideas that belong exclusively to their author. [cite]  Thus, any author may draw from the history of English-speaking peoples, but no one may copy from A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.  [cite]  Any artist may portray the Spanish Civil War, but no one may paint another Guernica.  [cite]  And anyone may draw a cartoon mouse, but there can be only one Mickey.  [cite]

The court stated that the central issue in the case was how to separate the “protectable from the unprotectable in architectural works.”
Some architectural designs, like that of a single-room log cabin, will consist solely of standard features arranged in standard ways; others, like the Guggenheim, will include standard features, but also present something entirely new. Architecture, in this regard, is like every art form.
The court then concluded that “even if Defendants copied Zalewski’s plans, they copied only the unprotected elements of his designs.”
As the court elegantly phrased it,

Most of the similarities between Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ designs are features of all colonial homes, or houses generally. So long as Plaintiff was seeking to design a colonial house, he was bound to certain conventions. He cannot claim copyright in those conventions. Great artists often express themselves through the vocabulary of existing forms. Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets; Brahms composed his Hungarian Dances; and Plaintiff designed his colonial houses. Because we must preserve these forms for future artists, neither iambic pentameter, nor European folk motifs, nor clapboard siding are copyrightable.

The lesson here is that in order to be protectable under copyright law architectural designs need to do more than simply replicate a vocabulary of architectural conventions.

If you have questions about copyright protection for architectural drawings or other designs, contact our office for a free initial consultation with one of our attorneys.

Please contact us today for a free consultation at (855) UR- IDEAS or (855) 874-3327.


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Leech Tishman’s Intellectual Property attorneys are dedicated to the protection and monetization of your ideas and innovations. Many of our registered patent attorneys have advanced degrees enabling him or her to truly understand the complex technical details of your idea. Several bring engineering expertise, others molecular biology, manufacturing and business to your trademark, copyright, patent prosecution and litigation and trade secret issues, both domestic and international.
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Please contact us today for a free consultation at (855) UR- IDEAS or (855) 874-3327.

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Photo Attributions:  “Copyright Symbol” is used under Free Art License. “Diagram of the basic form of projection used in architects’ drawings” used by GNU Free Documentation License.


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