Do buildings have copyright?

By Andrew Hudson Published: September 27, 2011 Updated: October 29, 2013

From a photography perspective, generally no. You can photograph a building from a public viewpoint.

Note that there may be trespassing, privacy and trademark issues with buildings, and artwork on buildings (such as sculptures and murals) can have separate copyright protection.

Copyright of buildings in U.S. Copyright Law

In the U.S., buildings designed after 1978 can have copyright on the design of the “architectural work”, such that an architect can license (sell) their creative design.

“[Copyright exists on the] design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features.”
United States Code 17 (Copyright Law), Section 101

Photographer’s exception for buildings

Interestingly, there is an exception to copyright law to specifically permit “pictural representations.”

“The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place.”
United States Code 17 (Copyright Law), Section 120

“Any one may take a photograph of a public building and of the surrounding scene.”
— Pagano v. Chas. Beseler Co., 1916

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

A landmark case concerning selling photographs of modern buildings is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame v. Gentile, 1998. A photographer was sued for selling posters featuring the “unique building design trademark” of the Cleveland landmark. The photographer won on appeal.

“we agree that the record before us does not establish a strong likelihood that Gentile has made an infringing trademark use of the Museum’s name or building design …”
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame v. Gentile, 1998, Opinion II [39]

For more information, see buildings copyright and trademarks.

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