Who Owns The Plans? Owners, Architects And Engineers, And The Federal Law Of Copyright

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Bob has been saving up for his dream home his entire life. While not an architect himself, he follows architecture trends and visits buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei. After purchasing a plot of land on a hillside with a view of one of California’s fertile wine-growing regions, he contacts an architect to convert his crude sketches and ideas into usable blueprints. They execute the standard, unaltered form contract for architectural services provided by the American Institute of Architects. The architect then completes the plans and the house is built. Bob is now living in a beautiful and unique house that reflects his personal style. Several years later, someone purchases the lot next door. Because Bob’s house is so impressive, the neighbor also buys the blueprints from Bob’s architect and announces his intention to erect an identical home. Has Bob’s one-of-a-kind dream home become a model home nightmare, or does he have the right to claim ownership of the design and stop the copycat neighbor?1

In another locale, Fran purchases land to construct a commercial development and, with a handshake agreement to cover the expenses, hires her cousin to draw up the engineering plans. Unfortunately, because of the economic downturn, Fran defaults on her loan and her bank forecloses on the property. After the foreclosure sale, the new owner contacts Fran’s cousin and obtains the rights to the plans that Fran paid to produce. Is Fran’s investment going into someone else’s pocket, or can she prevent the lender from using the plans?2

Both Bob and Fran feel they should have the right to control the plans they purchased. The problem is, the plans may not be their property. But what did they pay for?

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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