Influence, Imitation and Intellectual Property in Architecture

As just about any parent will tell you, one of the luxuries ceded with the arrival of the first child is sleeping in on the weekend.  But, like many things in life, once you accept the situation you will find that there is a pleasant rhythm and ritual, even when the ritual commences a precious few minutes after 6 am.  On the upside, coffee is flowing that much earlier and I usually get to catch up on life and culture as I make breakfast.  A few weeks ago, I caught this piece from Studio 360, a radio program that has joined us as a steadfast Saturday morning companion.  The architectural content initially piqued my curiosity, but the broader implication of architecture falling prey to the ubiquitous practice of intellectual property theft ultimately kept my attention.

When we think of the economy, the image most often brought to mind is of long assembly lines producing durable goods.  In fact, our economy is now primarily driven by “knowledge-based industries” and has been for quite some time.  The generally accepted definition of theft still centers around material goods, but cases involving intellectual property theft are becoming more commonplace.  The most notable recent example is the ongoing dispute between Apple and Samsung over alleged patent infringement.  Bitterwallet Apple iPhone vs Samsung GalaxyAn air frivolity surrounded the case, particularly with the media posing the issue as Apple claiming rights to the idea of a “rounded box with a button at the bottom.”  In actuality, there is much more at issue than the physical appearance of the iPhone – but what if it was only about a rounded box?  Clearly, the iPhone is an immediately recognizable object and has reached iconic status in popular culture.  Other smart phones may provide similar functionality, but iPhone owners seek the recognition implied by the device – that they are a discerning consumer who values both form and function.  By imitating the form, the value of the image is diluted.

(Article on Apple winning Patent Case)

Taken on a larger scale, the architect faces a similar challenge.  The modern architect Le Corbusier claimed that Architecture is the skillful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light.  The masses of which Corbusier spoke – the column, pediment, arch and countless others – cannot belong to an individual architect.  When the architect designates a recognizable arrangement of these masses, however, that particular design becomes the intellectual property of that architect.  In fact, the AIA Contract B101-2007 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect clearly defines the architect’s intellectual property rights in Article 7.

Le Corbusier Ronchamp Chapel

So is there a limit?  When I began my study of architecture, I quickly realized that there is very little that has not already been done.  In my last post, I challenged the reader to begin taking notice of architecture and to collect a mental catalog of images.  By taking notice, we are subtly influenced by the work of others.  Rather than imitating, we gain inspiration and understanding of what works and what does not.  By reinterpreting what has been done, we pay homage to the masters and further the body of architecture without resorting to a banal copy.

The analogy of an iPhone to a building is a gross oversimplification, not to mention the legal difference between a patents and a copyright.  Relating design to intellectual property, however, is valid regardless of scale.  In the radio story, the host and guest made light of the economic consequences of intellectual property theft in architecture.  Perhaps the developer will take a minimal monetary loss, but to the architect there is a very real impact representing years of effort and investment.  The loss of a project of that size would likely mean the difference between success and failure for most firms.  Additionally, what is the lasting impact on a national and increasingly global economy that depends less on manpower and more on brain power?

Still think there’s no downside to a little copying?  I’d like to hear your thoughts.

(featured image borrowed from

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