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Who Owns the Rights to House Plans?

Recently 8z fielded this question from a client:

Q:

The owner of a lot has building plans for that lot, and has built the same house next door. The buyer is concerned with licensing / copyright laws.  The Architect on the building plans cannot be tracked down. How do we find out who officially owns the license for the plans?  If the current owners have the rights to build that home, can those right be transferred to the new owner?  

A:

Plans can definitely be transferred from one home owner to another on the sale of a home as long as seller owns the copyrights to the plans and both buyer and seller agree to the transfer.

– Things get tricky when you’re not sure who owns the plans, as in this case. By default, the architect owns the copyrights to plans they create. More detail here.

– For example, if the builder and the architect had an agreement transferring the copyrights to the builder, then the builder took ownership of the plans. It’s likely that is the case since it sounds like the builder planned to build more than one house from that set of plans. 

– So if the builder owns the plans, did he transfer them to the current lot owner when that transaction occurred? Sounds to me like he did, even if it was an informal transfer. The builder gave the new lot owner the plans and has not objected to him having the plans since. As they say, “possession is nine tenths of the law” and the seller of the lot possesses the plans. Disclaimer, I’m not an attorney.

– As far as taking the plans to another architect to modify or tweak them, I think that will be up to the architect. Your clients may have to negotiate how much they want the plans changed. Will it require a complete redraw, etc. I’m curious if each page of the plans are stamped with the original architects name claiming copyright? That might make some architects uncomfortable unless you can show them a document that shows the original architect transferring copyrights of the plans to the builder.  My hunch is that there will be plenty of architects willing to work with your clients when you tell them the story and the chain of events. 

As always, don’t hesitate to consult an attorney if you’re not 100% comfy. The attorney could draft some language for the current owner of the lot to indemnify the buyers from any adverse claims to the copyrights of the plans. 

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