Bill Protecting Architects’ Copyright Becomes Law

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Senate Bill 1214, carried by State Senator Brian Jones, was signed by the governor earlier this year.  The law limits the type of information prepared by architects that municipal planning departments can make available to the public in a copyable format. The restriction is intended to protect architects’ intellectual property rights, congruent with the Federal Copyright Act. SB 1214 will become effective January 1, 2023.

“The law balances California’s Ralph M. Brown act which ensures the public’s right ‘to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies’ with long-standing federal copyright laws that protect architectural drawings,” said Dogpatch-based architect Cary Bernstein, who initiated the bill.

With the advent of electronic permit filing, planning departments have posted architectural drawings online, in the spirit of government transparency, but with the effect of providing global access to sketches in ways they can easily be downloaded and copied without the designer’s knowledge or consent, a violation of the federal Copyright.

The bill allows for site plans and massing diagrams to be provided to the public digitally or on paper: these drawings offer primarily quantitative information such as the space between buildings, setbacks distances, parking lot locations, property lines, landscaped areas, and a three-dimensional form of buildings that describe the general profile, bulk, and size but limits the exposure of design expression, the primary concern of copyright protection.

Non-digital, printed plans will remain accessible on planning agency premises and during public hearings.

Bernstein began working on what’d become SB 1214 when a colleague told her that they’d downloaded an application she’d filed for a “complicated entitlement approval” from a city’s planning department’s website. 

“It was a compliment,” she said, “but it also initiated questions for me about why my drawings were available online and could be copied by anyone at any time.”

She began researching state management of federal copyright laws in 2019.

“I happen to love law and this issue allowed me to indulge my interest through a project for American Institute of Architects California,” said Bernstein. When “it became clear that a state-level response was warranted” she proposed a draft remedy to the AIA California Advocacy Advisory Committee of which she is a member. California State Senator Brian Jones subsequently agreed to carry the bill.