The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York recently issued a decision spelling out the scope of federal protection for architectural works and drawings.

In Sholtz Design, Inc. v. Sard Custom Homes, Case No. 11-3298 (2nd Cir. Aug. 15, 2012), the Second Circuit considered whether architectural drawings or sketches may be protected under federal copyright law. The case involved a claim by an architectural design firm, alleging that defendants had published, without permission, elevation drawings depicting the front of three homes the plaintiff designed. There was no dispute the drawings had been published without consent. The disputed issue was whether the published drawings were: (a) protected by the 1990 Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA); (b) protected under pre-AWCPA copyright law as "pictorial or graphic" works, like any other sketch or painting might be; or (c) not protected at all.

The AWCPA extended existing copyright protection for "graphic" works, so that "architectural works" (i.e., the structure built according to an architect's plan) could also be copyrighted. The District Court in Sholz Design inferred that infringement under the AWCPA could also apply to plans, if the copyrighted plans were sufficiently detailed to permit construction. This potentially raised an issue as to whether front elevation drawings depicting plantings, finish treatments and the like, would be entitled to protection under the AWCPA. It also raised a second issue as to whether Congress, in enacting the AWCPA, intended to foreclose pre-existing avenues of potential recovery for a designer claiming copyright infringement.

The Second Circuit concluded that "there is no … requirement" that an architectural drawing contain sufficient detail to allow for construction in order to receive copyright protection. And there was no need to consider whether the AWCPA, which extended copyright protection to "architectural works," would apply in the Sholz Design case, which concerned alleged infringement of copyrights to drawings, not structures. As the Second Circuit explained, the elevation drawings at issue were protected as "pictorial" or "graphic" works under pre-AWCPA federal copyright law. In so ruling, the court also confirmed that protections for "pictorial" or "graphic" works survived enactment of the AWCPA.

Implications for Design Professionals

The Sholz Design holding confirmed that the AWCPA did not supplant established protections for "pictorial" or "graphic" works. It also preserved the broad range of protections available to design professionals' graphic or pictorial work product, from sketches through elevation drawings and floor plans, and recognized the additional protections afforded to "architectural works" under the AWCPA.