Who Owns an Architect’s Plans & CAD Files?

Egbert writes: I have paid an architect in full ($7,000) for plans to an addition that measures 18×30 ft. The plan was declined by the zoning board, which later approved a revised plan for a smaller addition of 18×20 ft. When I asked him for the CAD files, the architect refused to give them to me. Kindly advise whether I have the right to own the CAD files? Also, should I be charged less for the smaller plan?

Steve Bliss, of BuildingAdvisor.com, responds:  The ownership of  architectural plans and CAD files is a common source of misunderstandings between architects and homeowners.

Unfortunately, the architect is under no obligation to give you the CAD files unless you specifically agreed to that in your design agreement. In the standard AIA agreement, the architect retains ownership of the copyright in the plans, and you purchase the right to use the plans once in the building of your house. It’s like buying an original work of art – you own the painting, but not the right to copy it and sell the copies. Similarly you will not have access to the CAD files.

Other arrangements are possible, but need to be agreed to beforehand. It is possible that you could negotiate a deal to obtain the CAD files for a fee – or for free if the architect has a change of heart. Perhaps if you explain to him how you intend to use the CAD files, he will be more cooperative.

It’s always best to discuss these issues up front – for example, what will happen to the plans if you decide to change designers or wish to modify the plans at a later date.

Regarding the fee, the answer will depend, in part, on the contract you signed with the architect, assuming you have a written agreement. Sometimes architects charge by the hour, sometimes as a percentage of the contract price. The smaller addition would presumably cost less, so perhaps the design work should cost less.

It sounds like the architect had to rework the plans, however, which took additional hours. If you were paying by the hour, this could have added to the final cost – not reduced it. If you are paying based on a fixed fee, you can expect to pay 15% to 20% of construction costs on a remodeling project if the architect provided comprehensive services (design, documents, bidding, and construction administration).

One key issue is whether the architect was negligent in designing an addition that was declined in permitting? If the design violated an obvious zoning regulation, then you would have a strong case that he should only charge you for the final, smaller design. If the design was rejected for reasons that the architect could not have reasonably anticipated, then you would likely have to absorb the extra design fees (assuming that you paid by the hour).

Since you have already paid in full, you don’t have a lot of leverage here. Whether or not you have a strong case legally, legal action is probably not cost-effective for the amount of money involved. Your best bet may be to express your concerns in a letter and meet with the architect to try to negotiate a mutually agreeable resolution.

Read more on architectural services, fees, and legal issues.

Q&A Index


  1. Hi Steve. A question of ownership of the plans: If the client sketches out the design and gives it to the architect to draw it up, who actually owns the copyright to the drawings. I feel the copyright rule allows architects to hold the client to ransom even if the client works out exactly what they want and they are merely copying it into some software.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      That’s an interesting question – and probably one with a murky answer. It’s not clear from your email what the dispute is about. Are you trying to get the CAD files from the architect? In general, architects are very reluctant to release their CAD files. It is partly a liability issue, but also a financial issue as you are suggesting. You need to go back to the architect for additional copies, modifications, etc. Unless you have a written agreement to the contrary, the architect generally owns the copyright and the computer files. Architects are selling their design services, not the drawings themselves. This is the standard arrangement and is generally supported by the courts. It is also part of standard AIA architect-client contracts.

      Copyright law protects the creative expression of an idea, but not the underlying idea. For example, you can copyright a specific illustration of an apple, but not the idea of an apple drawing.

      When more than one person contribute substantially to a creative work, it is considered a joint work – for example, a book with two authors. In a joint work, each person has equal and independent ownership of the copyright. In your case, it is possible that a court would consider the finished drawings a joint work in court (but of course it will never go to court, so this is really an academic question). The architect would claim that you merely contributed some ideas, but that he made and owns his creative expression of those ideas.

      As a practical matter, you would certainly own your original sketch but, in the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, would not own the CAD files. If you had gone to a draftsman rather than an architect, he might have been more amenable to giving you the CAD files as drafting work is considered more technical than creative. It’s always best to discuss these issues beforehand and to put your agreement in writing.



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