Copyright Rights and Wrongs

Copyright DefinitionCopyright seems like a rather lofty notion. Few put copyright at the top of their list of must-haves in contract negotiations, and even fewer take the time to actually register their documents for copyright protection. But you do have copyright protections under current law. That copyright can come in handy as a risk management tool as well as leverage in a fee dispute. Unfortunately, many design professionals give away their rights vis-à-vis their contracts without a full appreciation of the implications of their actions.

Copyright statutes have been on our books since the 1700s. The Copyright Act (Title 17 of the US Code) provides useful protection applicable to your practice by including pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, as well as architectural works, as copyrightable materials. Architectural works include drawings, models and the structure itself. “Arrangement of spaces and elements” are protected, but not “individual standard features.” Registering your architectural works creates a public record of the registration and is essential in an infringement action. It takes 30 minutes and $30 to complete. But even if you do not register your works, they are still protected unless you give those rights away by contract.

Copyright in Standard Design Contracts

Standard design industry contracts (e.g., AIA and EJCDC), keep the copyright with the design professional and provide for a limited license to the client/owner for use of the documents. That license is generally limited for use on the specific project only, and does not allow for transfer of that license to third parties. The design industry contracts also include an indemnity provision in the professional’s favor that mitigates risk should those documents be used or modified without proper authority. Most owner generated contracts, on the other hand, demand a transfer of copyright to the owner, and those terms are often agreed to by the professional, presumably because the professional is not fully aware of its rights or the risks involved in giving those rights away. Continue reading “Copyright Rights and Wrongs”

Shootout At The Copyright Corral

pronetworknews_dec2012Copyright: The Unused Weapon

It is no secret that in the current economic environment, it can be difficult to find projects, and the problem may not end there. It can be even more difficult to secure prompt payment from your client. Sometimes, it is difficult to secure payment at all.

There are certain statutory protections for architects in many states: design professionals’ liens for certain projects and mechanics’ liens for others. But like other legal remedies, statutory protections require timely legal action, and the legal fight can be both financially and personally arduous.

Most of the time, architects and other design professionals have one potential weapon in their arsenals that no one else on the project can bring to the unpaid fees fight: the ability to control the use of their work product through copyright protection. As long as the work product meets certain statutory requirements and their rights are not otherwise waived, design professionals own a copyright by authorship alone. Additionally, registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office entitles the copyright owner to additional statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in any ensuing infringement action.

Copyright is an underutilized tactic in the fee collection “gun fight.” On a project where construction had been in full progress but is stalled because no one – design professionals, project manager, general, and subcontractors – has been paid by the owner, the standard litigation tactic is to sue for breach of contract and file an action for foreclosure on any lien rights. But what if the owner is also in default on its construction loan? Continue reading “Shootout At The Copyright Corral”