Copyright Law and Structures

Q. Are buildings and other architectural structures, public and private, protected by copyright law?

A. Traditionally architectural works, such as houses and office buildings, were not entitled to copyright protection, since functional works do not enjoy copyright protection. This general rule was changed by the amendment to the copyright statute that provides protection for architectural plans and the buildings created from them. The law, however, includes a provision expressly permitting “the making, distributing [and] 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.”

There has been one case that held that a distinctive and very identifiable building, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, may enjoy trade dress protection; that is to say, the look and feel of a unique building may be so distinctive and identifiable that it’s considered a form of trademark. Buildings having a distinctive, identifiable look and feel may enjoy trade dress protection, and, thus, you should avoid using them in your work unless you obtain appropriate permission.

Note: Copyright laws are subject to change. This article was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of The Artist’s Magazine and reflects the laws in effect at the time the article was written.

Leonard DuBoff was a law professor for more than 24 years and has testified in Congress in support of laws for creative people, including the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. A practicing attorney and pioneer in the field of art law, he has also assisted in drafting numerous states’ art laws and has authored more than 20 books. In addition, he writes regular columns for such magazines as Communication Arts, Interface and Glass Craftsman. For further information, visit

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