By Alex Barthet
You might assume that an owner who pays for a set of plans has the exclusive rights to those drawings or blueprints. But in fact, there may be exceptions.
Look at the language surrounding the actual request for the drawings. This often addresses ownership. Design agreements generally have specific provisions noting that drawings and specifications will remain the property of the person or firm creating the work. Even without such restrictive language, courts have generally noted that design professionals own their drawings. While it is disfavored for an owner to use a professional’s drawings prepared for one project on another different project, one would do well to prevent the potential for such misunderstandings by negotiating appropriate contract language and address ownership as specifically as possible. Owners can become quite disappointed seeing the design of their signature building duplicated in another city or town – a design which they thought they paid their design professional to create just for them.
In the United States and many other countries, copyright protection extends to plans, drawings and designs, and generally benefits the specific author of a particular work. While registering drawings with a governmental office isn’t necessary to obtain copyright protection, it is usually helpful if one wishes to obtain damages and attorney’s fees for a claimed infringement. Works for hire on the other hand, prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or under a specific commission as part of a larger work, are generally not susceptible to such protection. Work produced by a design professional in the course of his or her employment will customarily be owned by that person’s employer. Of course, if the professional is working as an independent contractor or if an agreement states otherwise, then the work for hire exception may not apply. A careful review of applicable circumstances and documents is always recommended.
Ownership of plans shouldn’t ever be presumed, by either the author or the one commissioning the work. Rather, one must look carefully at the actual circumstances and documents surrounding the work.