Most people think the term “copyright” is limited to things like books, music, brand names and movies. However, in Australia, the Copyright Act of 1968 provides creators of any original work with exclusive rights to use that work. Building plans are specifically referred to in this Act and if you are building from plans without the permission of the owner of those works, you are breaching copyright.
Copyright is implied
There is no registration procedure for copyright. Copyright is created simply by the creator putting their ideas onto paper. The limited use of works created by the author can be passed to others through contractual agreements, but if a building designer is hired to design and draw plans, they will retain ownership of the copyright unless an agreement was made in writing.
Builders also have obligations when it comes to copyright. If a builder uses plans that they have neither any ownership of, nor any right to their use, they are equally liable for any breach of copyright claim that their client may face.
Fortunately, most builders are aware of the serious nature of copyright infringement and know what to look for to ensure the projects they are building are not breaching copyright. The most common breach of copyright of residential design is when clients come to builders with plans from somewhere else and ask builders to make some changes and then build for them. Most builders know that while there may be cost implications when changes need to be made to works by other parties, the cost and stress is far less than the consequences of contravening of copyright laws.
There is a common misconception that 10% or 20% or 50% of a building plan needs to change to avoid copyright infringement. This is a myth. Copyright is relevant to any unique works that can be attributed to the creator of those works. And if those unique works are even only a very small portion of a home design, copyright may still have been breached.
Keep yourself covered
The best way to avoid the issue upfront is ask the author of any unique works (designs) if you can adapt their work. Even if a license fee is involved, it is better in the long run. Protect your own work by ensuring a service agreement is signed detailing the rights and responsibilities of each party to the contract. Make sure you stipulate that copyright applies, and that ownership of the works is retained by the creator of the works.