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Find Architecture in Copyright

Photograph of the exterior of the National Gallery of Art's East Building; along the bottom is a blue banner with the words Find Yourself in Copyright and the Copyright Office's symbolThroughout U.S. copyright law’s history, the types of works protected have grown to encompass a wide variety of creative works—from maps, charts, and books to music, photographs, artwork, choreography, computer programs, and more. Thirty-two years ago today, on December 1, 1990, Congress further extended copyright protection to certain architectural works when the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act went into effect.

Image of the first page of the Copyright Office's Circular 41, Copyright Registration of Architectural Works

Circular 41 discusses architectural works.

By including architectural works, Congress helped satisfy some of the country’s requirements under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, a multilateral international copyright treaty the United States joined in 1989. Under prior U.S. copyright law, technical drawings of architectural works were protected as pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, but protection extended only to the drawing itself and not to the actual structure.

Today, copyright law protects certain architectural works such as houses, office buildings, museums, and churches created on or after December 1, 1990, subject to some limitations. A creator can register the copyright for an architectural work with the Copyright Office if the work is sufficiently original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as in a building or as depicted in architectural plans or drawings.

Copyright law protects the overall form of a building—the exterior façade from all angles—along with the composition of the interior architecture, which includes the arrangement of walls and other permanent structures that divide the interior into separate rooms and spaces. Individual standard features like windows and doors and standard space configurations are not protectable under copyright, and neither are purely functional features.

Under current copyright law, an architectural work and a technical drawing of an architectural work are separate works, each requiring separate registration applications, conferring separate scopes of protection. You can learn more about registering architectural works in section 926 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition.

In the Copyright Office’s new exhibit, Find Yourself in Copyright, world-famous architect I. M. Pei and his sketch for the National Gallery of Art’s East Building help illustrate the types of architectural works copyright protects.

I. M. Pei and the National Gallery of Art’s East Building

Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei designed some of the most recognizable buildings in the world, including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, France; the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong; and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Pei was born in Guangzhou, China, and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai before he moved to the United States in 1935 to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He later transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor of architecture degree, and attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, earning a master of architecture degree.

Photograph of an interior staircase in the National Gallery of Art's East Building, highlighting the interior architecture and glass ceiling

Interior staircase of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.

Throughout his sixty-year career, Pei designed various types of buildings and structures, from shopping malls and residential buildings to religious, art, and cultural institutions. In 1968, the National Gallery of Art’s trustees selected Pei to design the new East Building of the gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Designed in the style of modern architecture while complementing the existing style of the West Building, the East Building opened in 1978, and today, it houses the museum’s modern and contemporary art collection.

Constructed before the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act went into effect in 1990, the I.M. Pei-designed East Building is not protected by copyright. In the Office’s exhibit, the building serves as an example of the types of built architectural works copyright now protects, in addition to the sketches and technical drawings of those buildings. Items on display come from the Library of Congress’s collection of I. M. Pei’s papers and include one of Pei’s 1969 sketches of the shape of the East Building and a 1978 photo of I. M. Pei in front of the completed structure.

 

Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.