in copyright

Misadventures in Copyright

backyard, four months later Last year I moved into a new house with a big backyard, but the yard faces directly south, so it bakes in the summertime. I decided to find a local architect to help build a small shade patio off the back, and in the process I learned a lot about how far-reaching copyright law hits everyday people.

  1. After meeting with an architect, I was asked to get the plans for the house from the city building department, to use as reference. I drove down and requested them at the desk, and they said they wouldn’t give them to me as a homeowner — the builder of the house had to request them (I assume, because of copyright, so I won’t go build a duplicate house on my own?).
  2. I met up with the builder later that day, since he was building another house in the city. He was surprised and slightly annoyed he had to do this, so he called the department and told them to go ahead and let me see the plans to get copies made.
  3. The next day the City lets me pick them up, but says I must return them by 5pm the following day (or I guess they turn into a pumpkin?).
  4. I go to a large local copy shop, drop off the plans, they say they’ll be done in two hours.
  5. 1 hour and 55 minutes later, I get a call saying they can’t make the copies, due to copyright. I’m told I need written (verbal isn’t good enough) permission from the architecture firm mentioned on the plans before they would copy them. My only other choice is to come in and retrieve the plans.
  6. I scour the yellow pages online and no one else in the city has a large copier for house blueprint plans. I notice the plans have a paragraph-sized copyright notice/license on the side saying you are liable for $40,000 in damages if found copying them and the plans are only for one house built. There are also hand-stamped “COPYRIGHT” stamps on each drawing, on every page.
  7. I tell this story to my architect, who says she’d be happy to take the plans to the same copy shop that refused them, since they let her make any copies she needs.

As the owner of a home, of course I don’t “own” the design used to build it, but I don’t see why the city, the builder, the copier shop, and the original architecture firm all had to stand in my way before I could see the plans. To know where and how many windows are on the back wall before planning new construction off those walls sure seems like a legitimate use of plans that shouldn’t impede on copyright, but that’s the state of copyright matters today.


  1. The copyright itself is fine — of course a builder who puts time and effort into designing a home should be allowed to maintain exclusive right to that intellectual property — but as you point out, the enforcement of that copyright is broken as all hell. In your case, the builder and architect didn’t stand in your way at all… it was the city office and the copy shop that were behaving stupidly, but they only behave that stupidly because they’re under pressure to, and that pressure probably does come from architects and builders.
    Seems like the best way to avoid this would be for a builder to provide you with the plans at closing on a new home, and to have a policy in place for existing-home buyers to come in and get the copy directly from the builders. That way, the builders can feel secure knowing that contractors aren’t getting blueprints from the city so they can replicate details, and the copy shops aren’t involved at all (unless the builders use them to make the plan copies, and then they’d be in the perfect position to provide the shops with the letters they demand so vehemently… as if it’s impossible to forge the letter, and as if they do any checking on the veracity of the letter.) It’s astounding how useful having blueprints to your house can be; it’s literally the owner’s manual to your house, and can help you pinpoint electrical drops, ductwork, and dozens of other things that might impede DIY work or space planning. Now, if only there were reasonable blueprints available for our pre-1900 home in Capitol Hill…

  2. I am somewhat surprised by this — I am an architect (in Portland, no less) and we routinely go down to the plans department, pull plans for remodels we are doing (on other architects’ buildings), and have copies run.
    Maybe it is because you are a homeowner? Or because you don’t have a relationship with a copyshop? Interesting…

  3. Matt, copyright isn’t broken. The reason these firms stand in your way is because the blueprints are copyrighted, and if they let you copy them without permission from the copyright owner, they could be sued. It’s increasingly common now for photo labs, copy shops, framing shops, etc. to refuse to copy artwork and images, particularly if there is a notice of copyright fixed to the imagery. As a working photographer, I register my copyrights with the US Copyright Office and I would certainly exercise my right to compensation (and to sue) if I found out a copy shop was permitting my customers to copy my images without my permission (and without compensation). As noted, in this instance your architect was happy to give you permission to copy the bluelines.

  4. Blech. While I totally understand and support copyright for a lot of reasons, it’s really sad when situations like this arise. It seems like Fair Use only applies when it’s convenient to the copyright holder…

  5. Tim, I don’t know if I was completely clear, but there are two architects in the story, one is a mass market home plans thing, which affixed the copyright and I understand why they do that (because their business is selling one copy of plans to a builder of one house).
    The second architect is someone I hired locally, who is getting the copies made, copyright hurdles be damned.
    To me, it sounds like there should be a safe harbor of copyright in my case. Home plans are not exactly like photographs, they’re more like an instruction book to my home, and while I’m thinking about doing a modification to it, I want to see them. I know there are legal issues with the original engineering and design that the mass market architect has to protect themselves against, but I can’t see myself ever going back to them to sue if anything goes wrong.
    It felt weird to me that a copy shop asked me to contact someone I’ve got no connection to — the people that sold plans to my builder. I’m several layers removed from them.

  6. Jason, in an aside, points out something that strikes me as important: “Now, if only there were reasonable blueprints available for our pre-1900 home in Capitol Hill…”
    What happens when/if the original home plan company goes out of business? The copyright goes back to the original architect-for-hire, I’m assuming.
    And then that architect dies, and suddenly to get copyright permission (for 70 more years, remember?), you’re tracking down heirs of an architect whose name might not even be on the original document.
    What sort of fresh hell is that?
    My house is 30 years old; actually 32, since it’s the exact same age I am. We got a bunch of papers from the city, which included the building history but not plans.
    The architect of record on that project is long since gone, definitely from the original address, and probably from this world entirely. I’d always thought it was kind of a bummer not to be able to get plans, but to think that I’d have to fight copyright to get a copy? Bleh!
    (Instead, we’ve spent lots of time with tape measures and pencils, plus a stud finder, in the course of various remodeling-type adventures.)

  7. Matt, for me that’s a good summary of what it is like to deal with these matters in that Disneyland of lawyers where suing is second only to football in popularity otherwise known as the good ol’ US of A.
    Judging from the hordes of copier, Kinkos-like venues near the college campus I majored from that clone entire books with reckless abandon, down to the color covers and binding details, we probably couldn’t get to care less about these sort of things. (of course, I’m smack dab in the middle of the Third World, where copyright issues evidently matter as much as the future of Paris Hilton’s singing career).
    I wish there existed something like a practical application of Fair Use copyright that would contemplate common sense rules for cases like yours and many other similar instances where there’s absolutely no intention of profit or blatant infringement. Sadly, we only get to see the opposite extremes of the whole story.

  8. The problem here is the one-sided risk faced by copy shops. If they let you copy someting they shouldn’t, they face penalties. If they prevent yu from copying something you are entitled to copy, no penalty.
    The solution is to allow copy shops to be sued for prohibiting the making of copies that are actually legal under fair use, with similar penalties to those for copyright violation. That way, they face a symmetric risk, and actually have to think about each individual case and determine whether or not it constitutes fair use.

  9. Well, the situation could be even worse and the original architects could prevent you from making changes to the design (a patio roof is a fairly significant changes after all). My old school in Finland has walls that are possible health hazards because the architects family won’t allow any changes to be made to the design (copyright in effect 70 years after the death of the architect).
    While, as someone who thought of becoming an architect at some point, I really understand the need to protect one’s intellectual property, fair use should apply. After all, the homeowner has a fair need for copies of the plans. And copying the plans is not copying the work itself.

  10. I don’t understand why the copy shops or the city or photo labs or anyone else other than the copyright-holder should be responsible or liable for enforcing copyright restrictions. Have these middlemen ever been successfully sued, or is this an imagined threat?
    Tim, if someone was copying your photos, wouldn’t the appropriate course of action be to go after the person requesting copies, rather than the copy shop?

  11. The big issue is that plans are not the end product from an architect. They are part of the service that is provided. In a strict example of an architect working with a client, the client will get copies of the drawings. It gets a little tricker when it’s a few different owners down the line, but it’s not unreasonable to ask for a set of prints for the house you own.
    The reason the copyright issue hit you in the face is that too often builders have gone down to the city planning department and made copies of projects they have no connection too. Projects have been built stealing plans. It’s amazing the stuff that gets through sometimes. Depending on the situation, there might or might not be a lawsuit. I’m sure every copy shop is aware that if they copy something with a copyright, they can get severly burned, and that’s why they won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. They are not immune to a lawsuit, just because they are making the copies, even if they have no idea it is wrong.
    Just remember, the rules and roadblocks are there because some scum bag did all this before. I’m very happy that the city and copy shops are aware of this and doing what they can from preventing it from happening again. It just forces the good and honest people to have to jump through extra hoops.

  12. This copyright thing is hilarious. There are so many holes and its applied blindly. How does the city know that the guy on the phone is the copyright holder? As well, as Matt pointed out, the 2nd architect is able to get copies made because she always goes there.
    The reason why its easier to blame the store is that they have more money and a lot more to lose than the individual who’s making illegal copies.
    At a certain point all this intellectual property stuff is insane. However, it was never an issue before, since the technology to make (near) perfect copies of anything were either not available to the general public or to anyone.
    As long as people steal, there will be bars on the doors.

  13. I don’t see why the design of that particular house wouldn’t be considered part of the house itself. Once the architect is paid a fee for his services, shouldn’t ownership transfer to the purchaser?
    Or else, why isn’t there some sort of blanket “fair use” policy that the owner of a building has full ability to use the intellectual property surrounding its design for anything directly relating to that structure?

  14. I am involved in a 11 month dispute with a builder that took 2 years to finish the first one-third of my 5400 sq foot home on the intercoastal. He is paid separate for the Plans to the home. The County Govt. will not allow me to proceed without a letter of authorization from the builder that copyrighted, although his channges were quite minor from the Plans I provided from the architect,
    Talk about Reulatory non-sense, by the way I have arbitration with the builder December 4th and 5th. It looks like the Builders counsel is making a big deal if I have Implied rights to use the Plans on my own home!!?
    Anyway I have no intention of selling or allowing anyone else to use the plans.. County Building Dept, is costing me (hopefully the builder in contract cliams damages) a lot of money in ruined and weatherd materials and other damages. Anyone know more about rights to use plans, Implied to use the plans one time for my own home construction??

  15. technically if you folllow the logic through – if your commissioned architect instead took a survey of your property and drafted up the results of that they would be also be liable for copyright infringement as a kind of reverse engineering.
    this of course is ludicrous

  16. I have a question.
    The architect that I have commissioned to plans for a building has retired and closed his office.I have plans that are not complete and have paid this guy alot of money.
    Is it possible, after getting a release from this guy to have another architect duplicate his plans and complete them?
    Or am I out over $30,000.00 which this guy was paid?

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