Like artists, architects take huge pride in finding and having an identity in their work. After all, everyone wants to leave their mark in this world, to have their own voice. But there are also many technical implications to the architectural craft and throughout the ages, some building, planning, and structural solutions have been similar, or even exactly the same. In today’s world, for example, Instagram or Google can show us thousands of houses that solve the same problems with the same answers. While some of these solutions are common knowledge, others make us question whether they’re referencing someone else— or downright copying them.
First of all, we need to get it out that copying is robbery, and under no moral circumstances legal. However, in the world of architecture and arts, referencing someone else is a traditional way of honoring this creator, and the lines between these two situations are extremely thin. So thin, in fact, that laws regarding the subject are fairly young: in the United States, for example, even with the Modernist and economic boom of the twentieth century, only in 1976 Congressmen expressly stated “an architect’s plans and drawings” as intellectual property protected by law, and even then the buildings originated from said drawings weren’t necessarily safeguarded. In the international context, problems go even further, since most countries haven’t even started arguing about the problems regarding copyright at the beginning of the 1980s, so in 1986 many countries, including the US, signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, where most of today’s notions about copyright in Architecture were set. By 1990, the Architectural Works Protection Act (AWPA) was passed in the US, granting statements from past discussions and making various corrections in the original Copyright Act of 1976 and in the Berne Convention, but nuances in these laws are still a matter of discussion to this day. Since then, other documents have been built upon these laws, such as the 2007 Copyright Act.
But what can we learn from all this historical record, for modern, everyday applications? In buildings, it is sometimes common for countries to use other places’ codes in case there aren’t any local and reliable ones. So, if you’re having trouble contacting authorities in this matter (which is extremely advisable since rules can vary in the local context, be it governmental, cultural or in universities), the 1990 AWPA is a reliable document to study, once it used the Berne Convention to develop even further copyright codes and rules. It became the main norm for the subject. In broad lines, its scope of protection extends to “the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design but does not include individual standard features” (17 U.S.C., article 101). If this piece of information seems too technical, what can be taken away is that those great images from Instagram and Pinterest of beautiful staircases, doors, windows, and other specific features can be used in your next project without guilt. You’ve just got to use it wisely in new designs.
But let’s be honest, if you found a new way to solve problems and someone used it without giving credit, you wouldn’t like it. Don’t do it to others. So, the unwritten rule around the world is to always give credit to those who were references to your work. Why? Both for the simple moral reason already presented, but also because it’s actually very useful for your own work: in Architecture School, it shows you’ve done the research and helps your grades; in architectural practice, it is a tangible and existent material to convince your clients. After all, the craft of architects is also a marketing one, and references are potent arguments. Everyone wins in this situation.
And there are many ways to make well-thought references in projects. Presentation boards and speeches can include projects that worked as inspirations, the context in which a project is set can intuitively remind a reference, and even by naming a project it is possible to be done. The iconic Barcelona Chair, mass-produced today, gets this name from its original use by Mies van der Rohe, in the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion. Subtle, elegant and honest, this is referencing done right.
Architecture, however, isn’t only about projects. Copyright sometimes influences sharing news and knowledge, pictures and information. For photographers, the 1990 AWPA also dictates what can and can´t be done: it was allowed to take pictures of any building before 1990, and to do so with any post-1990 building or detail that can be seen from public space, interior (through windows, for example— even though that’s creepy so probably it’s better to be avoided) or exterior. The only thing that can’t be done is taking photos of private property, without permission, after said date. Sharing architectural photography and texts already falls under different categories, since the content as such doesn’t matter, if not for the act of sharing another’s intellectual and artistic work. Its rules are the common plagiarism ones, which are widespread in university departments and the internet.
Taking inspiration is an intrinsic part of Architecture. The Renaissance and Neoclassical buildings, but as humanity’s most beautiful by many, have clear references to Classical structures in their projects and present no shame in doing so. They develop their own concept over these influences. Besides, most of us only know them through shared pictures and information, which shows the importance of falling under architectural copyright legislation in every category for the wider community. To think about the future, we must always look to the past and see what to change and what to preserve, no matter how radical the observer’s position, but only copying what others have done is a crime and should be avoided at all costs. To prevent it, study local legislation, the Berne Convention and the AWPA or simply ask teachers if you’re still in school. Above all else, know that originality stems from a solid repertoire and that referencing is extremely useful, so following its rules is a safe way to finally developing your own voice in the architectural world.