The Australian Dream Series


Copyright on home plans

In the initial stages of compiling their ideas many people 'do the display home circuit' to look at differing styles and to pick up on design features that they would like to incorporate in their own home. They may select pictures from magazines or take ideas from friends who have recently built a new home to assist them in putting together the type of home that they would like to live in.

The problem that faces both designers and home owners is the subject of copyright.
Many people come to us and say "we really like this design. How much do we need to change it so that we can use it as our own?". The answer we generally give is - totally.
There are misconceptions, that by changing room sizes or even the swing of doors, that the original design has been altered sufficiently to negate any copyright protection. This is definitely not the case and to help explain why even large changes may not alter protection we need to understand exactly what copyright is as enforced under the Commonwealth Copyright Act.

Importantly, under the Act there are no formal requirements or any registrations required on items for copyright to exist, nor is there, in relation to artistic works, any need by the owner to show a copyright symbol.
Copyright protection is given to the author of any original idea or concept once it is in material form. The idea or concept itself cannot be the subject of copyright.
For copyright to exist the work must be 'original'. That is, it must be the authors artistic work and not copied from another source either consciously or subconsciously.
Within the context of house plans, architectural ideas and concepts are not themselves protected against copying, but the plans and the buildings that result in material form are.
From this it can be seen that both a plain rectangular home design and a complicated irregular design could conceivably be afforded protection. It would obviously be far easier for the 'owner' of the latter to prove ownership in a court of law, but none the less infringement penalties on either could be as severe.
Only ideas or concepts taken from either original design and put into a material form sufficiently removed from the original, that a lay person could not see the similarity, would be deemed as original works.

The subject of 'ownership' also arises between designers and their clients at times.
If an owner approaches a building designer with a design brief or a verbal description of their ideas and the designer then puts those ideas into plan form, then the designer owns the copyright to that design.
If an owner provides a detailed sketch and asks the designer to 'present' them in the correct format i.e 'drafting' the plans not 'designing' them then the owner would hold the copyright.
Following on from this if an owner who had a home 'designed' for them, several years later had that design redrawn by another firm to go on another site, then they and the new design firm would be in breach of copyright.

Copyright, to my understanding, would normally exist until 50 years after the death of the author. This may have changed.
Owners wishing to retain copyright of their home design should request that their designer 'assign' copyright to them in writing.

'Assignments' can vary in their limitations and these should be discussed. For example the 'copyright owner' may assign a set number of replications. They may allow, for example, a builder or owner to construct 3 dwellings in Queensland, another builder to construct 7 in South Australia or the assignment may be worded to hand over complete copyright to the client.

In summary - many people assume that because the home design is a culmination of their ideas and that they have paid for the design to be drawn up that they own the design. This is not necessarily the case.  


Putting it all together >>