Why Architects Own Their Drawings, & What Clients Can Do about It

Do you know that your architect automatically owns all rights to the designs, drawings, specifications, sketches, and other documents created for your project? Many folks do not realize this, including architects, clients, and builders who bring these projects to reality.

If nothing were mentioned in an agreement between a client and architect, according to law, the architect would indeed own these rights entirely; however, most architects use an agreement that defines how their documents may be used. We’ll tell why, here, and later, we’ll mention some ways that clients, architects, builders, and other stakeholders can modify these rights to help one another.

What, exactly, does the architect own, and why?

Let’s answer the “why” first. Anytime an Individual creates something, it belongs to that person, and few in a free society would dispute this. The laws in all advanced societies protect this as a set of rights called “intellectual property”, in this case copyright, which in America is enforced at the Federal level, but recognized throughout all the States. In designing a project, the architect creates a design and a set of drawings and other documents that tell how to build a building, and these belong to the architect, both morally and by law.

On the other hand, it’s clear that if a client engages an architect, the intent is to get a design and a set of “blueprints” to build a building that belongs to the client, who pays for the architect's services. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) requires that something purchased be fit for its intended purpose, so an architect’s services and its documents should generally be able to be used to guide the construction of a building. Thus, morally and legally, the client’s needs are protected, as well.

These “blueprints” —nowadays often in the form of xerographic prints or electronic files instead of the old-fashioned blueline (or diazo) print — are really not products, but instead, they are the expressions of activities by the architect in creating them. For this reason, they are called “Instruments of Service” by most architect-client agreements, and are sometimes referred to as “deliverables”.

The architect exclusively owns five aspects in these expressive works, by copyright law. They are 1) right to copy; 2) right to derive from (i.e., alter) the original; 3) right to sell copies and derivatives; 4) right to display; and 5) right to sell or otherwise provide any of the other rights. Paying the architect to perform services, by itself, does not change ownership of the rights from the architect to the client, but it does allow the architect to grant the client certain rights to use the deliverables to do what the client wanted in the first place — to build a building.

Therefore, the agreement between an architect and client will usually have a statement that the client is licensed to use the documents to build the building shown, on the given site. Without such a statement, the UCC normally would allow such a use by the client, anyway (an "implied right"). Problem solved.

But what if the client wants to use the design and documents for additional purposes? And, why doesn't the architect just "give" all rights to the design, drawings, and related documents to the client, anyway? We’ll cover these and other questions in another post soon. Stay tuned, and Like us in your favorite social media to be sure you see the follow-up!

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