Virginia Architects Entitled to Copyright Protection

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. ยง 102(a)(8). Architectural works are defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a drawings.jpgbuilding, 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 constituted infringement 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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