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Whose Plan Is It?
If you are like many people who attend the Showcase of Homes,
you may have been building your dream home in your mind for years,
combining ideas from several places over time. Finally the time has
come for you to transform these ideas from what was once just a
dream to the reality of your new home.
Though you don't have experience as a professional architect or
residential designer, over time you have looked at several floor
plans and developed some knowledge of home design. After drawing
your unique idea out on a piece of paper, you're ready to take it
to the builder you have carefully chosen over years of viewing
The builder you have chosen takes that rough drawing and makes
it an official blueprint by using its in-house residential
designer. You've paid for the plan and are ready to start your
home-building journey. After your home is complete and you're all
moved in, you see a house very similar to yours go up in the same
neighborhood by the same builder.
How can the builder use your unique ideas and turn them into a
copycat home? After all, you paid for the plan, so doesn't that
make it yours? Not necessarily… Under the Copyright Act of 1976,
payment for architectural or construction plans does not give
exclusive rights to the purchaser, unless this was a written term
of the original agreement.
Even though the ideas and rough sketches were originally yours,
in the case of home construction documents, the architect, engineer
or residential designer who formally draws up the plans are almost
always considered the author of the plan and the owner of the
So what did you purchase when you paid the builder for the plan?
Unless there was an express written agreement to transfer the
copyrights to you or to provide you an exclusive license, all you
purchased is a non-exclusive license to use the plans to build your
home. This means that you can complete your home without further
permission based on the copyrighted designs, but that is the only
right you have in regard to your plans.
You may be wondering: if I do not even own the plans, am I
liable for copyright infringement by constructing this home using
ideas from several different plans? The answer is: maybe.
You do need to be careful. The plan does not need
to be an exact copy for you to be liable for copyright
infringement. The more original and unique your sketches, the more
likely you do not violate the copyrights of a third party.
It gets even more confusing considering there have been
amendments to the Copyright Act since 1976. Under current law,
copyright protection with respect to home construction is found in
two different ways:
This means that both the drawings/floor plans and the actual
constructed home are protected under the Copyright laws.
While the Showcase encourages participants to view the homes to get
ideas, the floor plans and front elevations you are reviewing are
for informational purposes only. You are not allowed to copy plans
from the guide book without the copyright owner's permission, or it
is an act of infringement. Even if you don't copy a plan, if you
have a builder construct your home using the same features as a
third party's home or as was found in the booklet, it is a
violation. How much change is required to avoid liability for
copyright infringement? Only a judge or jury knows.
Below are some tips for protecting yourself when it comes to
How to protect your unique ideas:
How to protect yourself from potential
When dealing with copyrights, it is always better to be safe
than sorry. Litigation is expensive and damages can be excessive.
When looking to borrow an idea from an existing house, find the
true copyright owner of the plans and obtain written permission to
use a design. This will save you considerable time and expense down
This article drafted with assistance from Attorney
Tori Lynne Kluess and the Intellectual Property Team at the Law
Firm of Conway, Olejniczak & Jerry, S.C.
811 Packerland Drive
P.O. Box 13194 | Green Bay, WI 54307-3194
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