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Un/Fair Use Review

The Unexpected History Behind “Un/Fair Use”

An exhibit at the Center for Architecture in New York explores the tricky question of copyright in architecture.

Architect, October 2015

Is the design of a finished building protected under copyright law? Before 1990, the answer was no. If you were an architect and someone copied your drawings, you could sue for copyright infringement, because the drawings were protected as your graphic works. But if someone built an exact replica of one of your buildings, too bad—three-dimensional works of architecture weren’t covered. You could only sigh and resign yourself to being ripped off.

This gap in the law was exposed to glaring effect in 1988, with a case in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, Demetriades v. Kaufmann. Cheryl and Nicholas Kaufmann, a couple in Scarsdale, N.Y., admired a large, many-gabled house being built in their neighborhood by Demetriades Developers. The Kaufmanns took photos of the house when it was under construction, were able to get copies of the plans, and asked their contractor to build them the same house. The court found that graphic copying had taken place (the Kaufmanns never denied their intent to replicate the Demetriades design), and ordered that the copied drawings be destroyed. But the house itself was untouchable. It didn’t infringe on any laws. The Kaufmanns had new plans drawn up and finished building it.

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