Are Survey Plans Entitled to Copyright Protection?
Have you ever wondered if a surveyor’s drawings are entitled to the same sort of protections afforded to an architect’s blueprints? You might think so but it turns out, it depends.
The leading case on this issue comes out of New York. A surveyor prepared a site plan in connection with the construction of a new building. The plan consisted of a depiction of the grade and contours of the land, a proposed location for the building, and the proposed location of utilities. Sometime during construction of the project, the original surveyor was terminated and an amended survey plan was used to finalize the project. The new plan was substantially similar to the original. The first surveyor filed suit for a number of claims, among them copyright infringement. The district court entered summary judgment finding that the site plan was not copyrightable, specifically noting that the identification of existing physical characteristics of the site, such as elevation measurements and location of boundaries, are not afforded copyright protection. But the appellate court vacated the district court’s decision. The appellate court recognized that along with the existing physical characteristics of the site, that do not contain any originality on the part of the author, the original survey plans also contained detailed specifications for the improvement of the site, and these were entitled to copyright protection.
So identifying existing factual information about the site – boundaries, plot lines, abutting parcels, public streets, contour lines, elevations, slopes and existing structures – would not be copyrightable. However, detailed specifications for the preparation and improvement of the site showing original and creative authorship, these would be entitled to copyright protection.
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