As an Architect and Designer, we often put a copyright notice in our plans to prevent others from using our creative ideas without our consent. But is this enough to serve its purpose? After all, copyright on plans is very difficult to prove in court given its complexity.
Our customers can use our ideas even without paying us a single cent!
Just recently we encountered a customer who did just that. They asked for a test-fit of a recent space they have leased here in Singapore. After a few rounds of changes then requested for a 3D visual and a quote. Unfortunately, they never came back to us afterward. Our company made some calls, send follow-up emails and left whatsapp messages with no reply.
Fast forward a few months after that incident. A new project came up at the same building a few floors down. We decided to check out the place and there it is. Our concept and idea on full display with a few minor tweaks and that’s it. We tried to have a word with the manager but was not allowed to speak to anyone after introducing ourselves. We left frustrated and helpless, this isn’t the first time. Fighting for our rights may cost even more than the design fee we can charge this customer. It’s not worth the hassle, therefore we just need to be wiser moving forward.
How can we protect the designers?
Providing a test-fit with artist impressions to customers has become a normal practice in Singapore. Furthermore, potential customers can call for an (RFP) Request for proposal complete with a layout plan, 3D visuals, material specifications and quotation. What more can you ask for?
During the selection process, copyright infringement may already be at play. The customers may like the designs but are not happy with the price. Because of this, the potential customer may be tempted to use their preferred design and appoint the job to a much cheaper contractor. This rampant practice has raised the question of the effectivity of the copyright notice which is mostly located on the drawing title block. Is this sufficient to cover our intellectual property on our drawings?
Gone were the days of manual presentations where the designers can keep the plans after initial customer discussions. Subsequent meetings mean the designer can already charge for the next meeting up until the project is awarded. With the onset of technology copies of the proposal are sent through emails or uploaded to the cloud before the presentation date to meet the RFP deadline. From this point onwards the designer has minimal control over the creative work and has already given the idea for free.
The roles of governing bodies on copyright
Based on the IPOS website (Intellectual Property Office of Singapore) there is no specific mention of Architectural or Interior Design plans on the list. Thou copyright protects the expression of ideas e.g. drawings, models of buildings and aggregate visual images. For starters, you can download the copyright info pack for more information.
There is no union or organization strong enough to enforce a robust mandate to protect the designers. Singapore may be a small place to start putting in place an “Architectural Copyright Law”, hence I am sure it can just adapt simple international guidelines and integrate it with its current framework to safeguard Architects, Designers, and small design and build firms here.
“Copyright infingement carries the risk of enhanced damages, attourneys fees and court cost”
An interesting article about architectural copyrights can be found at Archdaily.
What is our best course of action?
The Architect, Designer, and Contractors can all initiate change from within. it is difficult to resist temptation once a potential customer calls for a meeting with a design on hand which can possibly be from another company.
“If given plans from others, ensure that you have the right to construct, copy and or modify those plans before using them”
It is in everybody’s best interest to politely ask if there has been permission granted to use the drawings for the customers’ purpose. This may turn off the customer at first but after a while, they will be taken aback and realize that what they are doing may be a copyright infringement and be impressed by the sincerity. A small gesture that can have a profound effect if practiced by everyone in the industry.
Times are hard and most of us struggle to survive to make an honest living. In this highly competitive industry with minions of clients spoiled for choice. The answer to the question above is a big “NO” putting a copyright notice is not enough. It needs proper laws, cooperation and implementation than just a mere space in your title block.
Tip, You can ask your client to sign a non-binding Letter of Appointment to provide credence and protection to your creative ideas before proceeding further with your discussions.
Feel free to give me your comments and provide a feedback about this article.
You may also want to read this related article: The inconvenient truth, why has design become a value-add instead of a selling point?