Chris D. Craiker, The Achitex Angle: Architectural copyright law: What’s in it for you? | Home & Garden Columnists

“Architectural Copyright” law may sound like legal gobbledygook to you, but it’s there to protect you and your personal home designs.

It’s not uncommon for homeowners to go online, find an architectural design or interior floor plan they like, copy it and use it for their own desire. Are they infringing on a copyrighted design? Are they liable for a lawsuit? Let’s take a look.

The actual Architectural Copyright Protection Act of 1990 was intended to protect architectural designs that were unique, such as a Frank Lloyd Wright home, from being copied. (

The intent was to minimize stealing a prominent architectural design, but also to define grounds for legal action against infringements. There are two elements of a copyright claim:

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1) One can’t copyright an idea, such as “open kitchen”; only a specific expression of that idea, such as a plan with unique utensils, appliances or special cabinet design.

2) When certain architectural design elements are so common, they are unprotected — for example, a stock bathroom with a toilet, lavatory and tub in a 5-by-10-foot space.

This seems simple but interestingl,y the act became twisted in the ’90s. New home construction became very cookie-cutter as lots became smaller with fixed attributes. A garage in the front, a narrow side yard entry, a standardized living room/dining room/kitchen and an upstairs floor plan, all of similar shapes. Subdivisions became redundant and repetitive using pretty much the same plans throughout.

Kaufman and Broad, K&B, designed a subdivision using simple floor plans that another architect felt was his own design, never mind that it was the same as hundreds of other plans. K&B hired me as an expert witness to show that the floor plan might have appeared the same, but the volume spaces and exterior designs were significantly different, thus not a copyright encroachment.

This was my one contribution to copyright law: It has to be more than similar floor plans; there has to be three-dimensional space duplication with identical orifices or openings.

However, life can get more complex. Recently I designed a custom home and accessory dwelling unit for a couple who sold the property to a developer. The design was copyrighted, approved by the city with very specific requirements. The developer, not wanting to pay me to continue, chose to take my plans to someone else to complete. Unfortunately, he is infringing on my copyright, unless he significantly changes the design of which I would provide consent.

In today’s world, every piece of land is unique and deserves a special solution. Taking a floor plan from any source, copying it verbatim, including the floor plans, notes, openings and elevations, is going to put someone in jeopardy. Customizing the floor plans, volume spaces, dimensions and clarifying the uniqueness of the solution to the site to fit the property and owners’ needs is the best way to proceed.