Harry Campbell
Harry Campbell

As an attorney at Wyche, a law firm in Greenville, S.C., Wallace K. Lightsey guards against copyright theft. The violations he’s seen range from individuals who’ve purchased architectural plans and put them up for sale on eBay, to a Philippine company lifting house plans off a U.S. website and selling them verbatim, copyright intact, at a fraction of the licensed cost.

Some people are just blissfully unaware of what copyright means, Lightsey says. A well-worded letter usually does the trick. But others are clearly gaming the system. Case in point: a $1.4 million verdict against Signature Homes this past February. The company was charged with illegally using eight copyrighted designs by Kennesaw, Ga.–based Frank Betz Associates to build and sell 78 homes in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

“Most of the time, copyright infringements are discovered through luck or coincidence,” explains Lightsey, who co-prosecuted the Signature Homes case. “It happens all over the country, so there’s no way to police it.”

Once upon a time, it wasn’t that hard to protect intellectual property. But it’s so easy now to duplicate an image or design in the online world. There is virtually nothing in place to stop people from either taking credit for or profiting commercially from someone else’s work. The growing popularity of social media sites such as Pinterest and Houzz introduces another digital-era wrinkle, reflecting the broader debate about property rights online. Even if content isn’t being stolen and resold, the authors have little control over who uses it, how it is credited, and the revenues it generates for others through display ads online.

double-edged sword

The potential for piracy presents a marketing quandary. Architects want their ideas to be visible, but not exploited. “We want people to see and enjoy our plans; there’s no reason to hide anything,” says Eric Taylor, vice president of design at Frank Betz Associates. Before licensing its plans, builders often advertise them on their websites, he says, so the promotional drawings include room dimensions. That makes them an easy target for theft. But a good draftsman can extrapolate room dimensions from a standard tub size, Lightsey points out, so they may as well be provided for potential buyers.

“Some home-design clients have experimented with disabling the print function,” he says, “but people want to print and compare plans before making a decision.” His home-design clients typically publicize an artistic rendering of the front elevation and a simplified floor plan with the main dimensions, but not all of the detail. “You want to provide enough information that a homeowner can get a sense of what the house will feel like and look like from the curb,” he says.

Most architects know the rules for protecting their work: Spend $25 to register plans with the copyright office as soon as they’re final. And although the copyright notice isn’t required anymore, it’s still a good idea to put it on the drawings. “It’s a warning,” Lightsey says. “It’s also good to include language on your website that says the designs are protected by copyright laws and that there can be substantial penalties for infringement.”

About those penalties. Even if you can’t prove a profit loss or damages from the infringement, you can still ask for statutory damages, Lightsey says. They can be as high as $150,000 if a jury finds the infringement was willful, or as low as $200 if it was innocent. Any profits pocketed from selling houses made from the design also are up for grabs, as was reflected in the Signature Homes sentencing.

Taylor was tipped off by a draftsman who, he thinks, had a falling-out with the builder. But litigation isn’t cheap. His company’s case against Signature Homes took five years to prosecute, and now the builder is appealing the verdict. “Everyone thinks we got a big payday, but copyright costs a lot of money to defend,” Taylor says. “The hard part is, we’re a small firm and don’t have the manpower to look for these things.”