In 1990, Congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (the “AWCPA”) which extended copyright protection to architectural drawings and the structures depicted in the architectural drawings so long as the drawings were sufficiently detailed to allow for construction.
On August 15, 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important decision that may further extend the copyright protection afforded to architectural drawings. In Scholz Design v. Sard Custom Homes, the drawings at issue were more in the nature of conceptual drawings than detailed construction drawings. The question was whether such conceptual drawings could qualify for copyright protection as “pictorial, graphic or sculptural” under Section 102(a)(5) of the Copyright Act even though such drawings did not qualify for protection under the AWCPA because they lacked the required detail.
Finding there was protection for the conceptual drawings at issue, the Second Circuit explained that the requirements for protection of architectural drawings under the AWCPA were different and more stringent than the requirements for general copyright protection for drawings as pictorial works. While drawings must be detailed to obtain protection under the AWCPA (which makes sense because the protection also extends to the resulting structure), protection as a pictorial work only requires the drawings be original and possess a minimal degree of creativity.
However, it must be emphasized that any general copyright protection afforded to conceptual architectural drawings as pictorial works will not necessarily extend to structures constructed from such drawings – such protection usually must derive from the AWCPA. This could be an important distinction where someone has copied a building itself (and made its own drawings) and not the drawings for the building. And as seen, sometimes, drawings (if sufficiently detailed) can be protected both as pictorial works and under the AWCPA.