Can engineering drawings and plans be protected by copyright? Engineering professionals who create such plans are understandably interested in protecting them. With a few exceptions, the answer is “yes.” This three part series will examine the application of copyright laws to engineering plans. Part one provides an overview of copyright protection available to engineers.

First some background on the subject: Copyright is generally known to apply to expression in literary works (books, manuals), computer programs (source and object code) and artistic forms (photographs or even engineering diagrams, plans). For design professionals, it is worth examining the scope of the protection from copyright as it exists in this framework and more importantly in engineering drawings.

Bear in mind that copyright is created automatically and does not necessarily need to be registered. Sometimes a copyright notice is applied to a work but this does not by itself impart copyright to the work. A copyrighted work can be two dimensional (an engineering drawing) or three dimensional (an actual component).

In 1990, the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was created to provide copyright protection for physical architectural works. Since architectural works were not previously protected by the Copyright Act, the AWCPA sought to address this area. In the AWCPA, it defines architectural works as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.” Keep in mind that the copyright protection afforded to “buildings” is limited and mandates that the building be habitable by humans. Furthermore, the building must be permanent and stationary, such as a house, office, museum or stadium. Structures which cannot typically be protected by copyright as an architectural work may include mobile homes, bridges, dams, recreational vehicles, tent structures, automobiles and boats.

Formal copyright notices are no longer required to be placed on the work but note that a copyright notice does give the owner some benefit in a copyright infringement action: Formal registration of the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office provides the owner with proof of the date of creation, an important issue in an infringement case. Also, the owner cannot commence a federal copyright infringement action without first registering the copyright.

As for ownership of the copyright, most courts have ruled that the author retains the copyright in the absence of a written agreement assigning the ownership. Accordingly, if a contract does not address ownership of the copyright, then the design professional would typically own the copyright in the plans.

In the next segment we will review the role of ownership and licensing issues as relating to engineering plans.

For some general background on copyrights, click here.

For more specific background on the Copyright Act, and its application to plans, click here.