Can a building be copyrighted? Do I need a property release?

photographerlocationCC0In 1990, Congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA), which amended the Copyright Act to specifically include protection for architectural works under 17 U.S.C. § 102. This protection applies to works created on or after December 1, 1990, and includes architectural plans and drawings as well as architectural works as embodied in the building itself. Therefore, a photograph of a building could infringe copyright. However, 17 U.S.C. § 120 provides as follows:

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.

This limitation means that no special permission is needed to take photographs of buildings in a public place, and such photographs will not infringe architectural copyright.

When taking photographs of property that is not visible from a public place, such as private lands and the interior of private homes, it may be wise to obtain permission in writing from the property owner and the owner of any architectural copyrights. Without this permission, a photographer could be liable for copyright infringement or other claims, such as trespass or violation of the right to privacy. The case of College of Charleston Foundation v. Ham is an example of claims that can arise over an allegedly unauthorized photograph of private property. A photographer can obtain written permission to photograph private property by having the property owner and any architectural copyright owner sign a property release. An example of a property release (with no guarantee of suitability for your purposes) is located on Docracy.

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