What Copyright Means In The Tiny House World

Recently there was an incident in which a set of plans was purchased from a website for a one-off build of a particular tiny house. Before receiving the download a EULA had to be agreed to that specifically outlined the plans as being for a one-time build only. A few months later though it was discovered that this agreement had been negated and the purchaser had used the plans not just to build more than one house but to actually begin a business with the tiny house blueprinted in the plans. It was an inarguable case of copyright infringement. Or was it? Does copyright exist in the digital world? Is intellectual property a real thing? Can a person be sued for breaking a EULA? Just what does copyright mean in the tiny house world?

According to Plagiarism Today,

Copyright is a law that gives you ownership over the things you create. Be it a painting, a photograph, a poem, a novel, or a tiny house design, if you created it, you own it and it’s the copyright law itself that assures that ownership. The ownership that copyright law grants comes with several rights that you, as the owner, have exclusively. Those rights include:

  • the right to reproduce the work
  • to prepare derivative works
  • to distribute copies
  • to perform the work
  • and to display the work publicly

These are your rights and your rights alone. Unless you willingly give them up (EX: A Creative Commons License), no one can violate them legally. This means that, unless you say otherwise, no one can build from your tiny house design, even with attribution, unless you give the OK. The key to this though is that one must first obtain a copyright in order to be protected under copyright law. Simply watermarking intellectual property does not give you any protection.

Quickly, intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce, and is subject to its own laws.

It is important to first note that your work is automatically protected by copyright when it is “fixed in a tangible form,” like a writing or drawing on a piece of paper. This means the U.S. copyright laws apply to your work as soon as you produce it, write it, record it, or draw it. Remember though, it isn’t enough just to be the first to think of your idea or invention. If you tell someone your idea, but that person fixes it in a tangible form (e.g., draws the blueprint) first, then that person owns the copyright, not you. Once copyrighted you can reap the benefits of such. You have the exclusive rights to reproduce, sell, distribute, etc. your work. Your copyright also allows you to create adaptations or derivative pieces from your work, and display your work in public.

HOW TO OBTAIN A COPYRIGHT

If you decide to you can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. You may want to do so because:

  • A registered copyright is a matter of public record.
  • Registered copyright holders receive a certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • You must register your copyright before you bring a lawsuit related to infringement of your work.

The easiest way to obtain said copyright is to do so online. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office’s online registration site, the eCO system, and create an account. You’ll need to create a digital version of your work and upload it with the application. Pay the filing fee online and submit your application. Done. After you have filed your application, whether by mail or online, you will receive a certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office. This certificate is proof that your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Permission text on paper hole

NOW WHAT?

Now you have the right to put a copyright notice on your work. Remember, a copyright notice should contain: the word “copyright” and a “c” in a circle (©) as well as the date of publication and the name of the author and/or owner of the copyright.

BUT WHY?

In light of the recent and aforementioned tiny house situation we must all come to terms with the fact that we live in a fast-paced, technologically driven society, where so much is available on the Internet and suing another has become commonplace. It is more important than ever to cover all aspects of your ideas and business including what is arguably the most overlooked, copyright.

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Digger McGee - October 21, 2015 Reply

So, I take it that there was no copyright infringement. If that is the case, couldn’t the person that created the blue print sue the company that sold him the plans if they continue to sell said plans?

    Andrew M. Odom - October 21, 2015 Reply

    The case is running its course through the court system now. Yes, there was infringement and it is currently being litigated.

Dee - October 21, 2015 Reply

It would have been nice to get more info in this article…name of person, company etc. Were the plans altered in any way ? Example: Placement of kitchen, stairs, beds, with or without bathrooms, other built- ins? If so, does it still count as a copyright infringement?
Maybe a future article can enlighten those of us that have those questions.

    Andrew M. Odom - October 21, 2015 Reply

    The case is being litigated now so there are no more details to give. It isn’t about the plans being used or changed. It is is about using a set of plans that were purchased upon agreement and understanding that they were for one build only. The issue is that the purchasing agent then took the plans to build multiple units of and has since set up a business. That is the copyright infringement statute.

      Henry - October 21, 2015 Reply

      I think the comment goes to the issue that if the design was changed, the thing that was originally copyrighted is not being reproduced, and therefore, the copyright should not apply. The way you phrase your response indicates that the primary issue is breach of contract, rather than copyright infringement (although it may be a relevant issue).

Frank Bellamy - October 21, 2015 Reply

These copyright laws are fundamentally unjust. Think about why stealing a physical object is wrong. If I take your sandwich, you don’t have the sandwich anymore, and you go hungry. That is how physical stuff works – my taking it prevents you from having it. And your not having it is the harm in stealing. Your not having it is why stealing it is wrong. But intellectual stuff doesn’t work that way. If I make a copy of your blueprint, you still have the blueprint. You are no worse off for my having the blueprint too. You have not been harmed. And thus, my action is not wrong. I however have been greatly benefited. I may now be able to build a better tiny house. That is good. And that is what is supposed to happen in a free society. Ideas and information are supposed to be shared freely, so that everyone can benefit. Limiting the spread of ideas is one of the worst evils I can imagine.

As a practical matter, I can understand not violating the copyright law when there is a serious risk of enforcement. But I would never follow an unjust law like this simply because it is on the statute books. And I would certainly never threaten to enforce any unjust right such a law might confer upon me.

    Debra - October 21, 2015 Reply

    You obviously don’t create intellectual property. Were you an artist, writer, designer, etc., you would understand that the person who created those plans spent their time and energy doing so. By selling the plans, that person receives something for that time and energy. By someone else taking those plans and using them in this way, the creator does not receive compensation for their time and energy. The person who did not create the design receives the compensation instead. As an artist and writer, I am well aware that a large percentage of the population thinks my work should be free to them, that I do it out of “love” of the process and that should be enough. Try paying rent or buying groceries with that “love.”

      Frank Bellamy - October 21, 2015 Reply

      On the contrary, the one constant in all the types of work I have done is that I create intellectual content. And I am absolutely appalled at IP laws that might make people afraid to use anything I have produced. I want my work to be as useful as it can to be to as many people as possible, that is why I do it. If you can’t accept other people benefiting from your work, at no cost to yourself, then I submit that you have chosen the wrong line of work.

    Henry - October 21, 2015 Reply

    I share your feeling to some extent. Many things, such as houses (tiny or otherwise) are copies of something that was previously built sometime in history (even if the current designer doesn’t realize it). The changes from what was previously built throughout history don’t seem to warrant copyright protection. Should recent changes in dimensions, or proportion, or even choice of building material turn a non-copyright protected design into a house unreproducible by another person without copyright approval? I don’t think it should; I don’t think it does.

    Reproduction of the printed plan itself (on paper or on-line) generally should have some copyright protection, at least as far as reselling it or using it as the plan itself as the basis for commercial production of the house. If you don’t use the plan, but instead reverse engineer the house on your own, there should be no harm, no foul.

    Brian - October 21, 2015 Reply

    This logic doesn’t work. Taking something that can be made more than once with no “effort” still robs the copyright holder of income produced from the work. Think of a photographer selling photos or a musician making music. Why bother producing if they aren’t getting paid? You’re stealing TANGIBLE work that has obvious VALUE to you or you wouldn’t want it. That’s theft, regardless if it’s physical or otherwise.

      Frank Bellamy - October 21, 2015 Reply

      Lets think about that photographer. As I see it, there are two possibilities. The photographer may be taking a picture of something that has been photographed just as well before, say a beautiful mountain range. If that is the case, then it is wasteful for the photographer to duplicate someone elses work and ask to be paid for it. Instead, the consumer should simply be able to use the photograph that has already been taken. In this case, the photogrpaher should not be paid. Alternatively, the consumer may want a photograph of something that has not been photographed before, like the consumer’s own wedding. In that case, the consumer would still pay the photographer for their work, as it is the only way for the consumer to get the product they want. So I think the logic does work. To the extent that creators of intellectual content actually produce something valuable, someone will pay for it without IP laws. All IP laws do is force people to duplicate other people’s work, which is wasteful.

    Debra - October 21, 2015 Reply

    According to the article, the problem was not with the buyer having the blueprint, or even making copies of the blueprint. The problem was the buyer using the blueprint to make not the one tiny house the seller intended, but several tiny houses to sell, as if the design were the buyer’s own. The designer created the blueprint so buyers could use it to create that perfect tiny house, not so they could make a profit from the designer’s time and effort of designing the house in the first place.

    Wade Fox - October 21, 2015 Reply

    Frank,
    Most Designers and Architects invest a great deal of time, effort, experience and education in their house plans. All of which come at a cost. Not being allowed to copy the work of another, leads to creativity and originality. I spend weeks producing a set of house plans; I should just, give them away? Do you feel the same about patents? Correct me if I am wrong, but people are always encouraged to improve on ideas. It goes beyond home plans, the laws protect photography, writing, art… A set of construction documents or “Blueprints” deserve the same protection. Time spent working should be compensated, not stolen. Do you feel the time you spend working is not worth compensation? In regard to various methods enforcing these laws, I’m sure people would not steal your sandwich, was there no punishment for doing so.

      Frank Bellamy - October 21, 2015 Reply

      If there is already a set of house plans in existence somewhere that would satisfy a particular consumer’s needs, then why would you want to produce a new set of plans for that consumer? That is a waste of your time. In one of my jobs I was asked to duplicate work other people had already done simply to get around IP laws, when I could have been doing something useful instead, and I resented that more than anything else I have had to do in my working life.

      On the other hand, if there is not already a set of house plans in existence that satisfies a particular consumer’s needs, then that consumer still has the motivation to pay you to produce new plans for them, even without IP laws.

      If there is genuinely useful work for you to do, work that has not already been done by someone else, then IP laws do no good, because what the consumer needs doesn’t exist yet. If what the consumer needs does exist, then you are not improving the world by duplicating someone else’s work and creating it again, and so you do not deserve to be paid, and you should feel insulted by the assignment. Either way, IP laws do no good, they only do harm.

      Here’s another way of looking at it. The whole notion of property is a result of scarcity. There is only so much physical stuff in the world, and property law is the way we allocate it to people. the limited quantity of physical stuff is just a property of the universe we find ourselves in, we can’t do anything about it. Bit intellectual stuff isn’t inherently scarce, the universe doesn’t limit the number of copies of Hamlet that there can be. IP law creates an artificial scarcity, it creates all the limitations and harms property, even though there is no need for it. To make an analogy to land, it is as though congress passed a law limiting how much land was available for people to live on, not because the country only has so much land in it, not because it wanted to protect wildlife, not because it wanted to use land for some other purpose, but simply in order to drive up real estate prices and the profits of real estate developers by artificially limiting the supply of land. It is utterly insane.

Wade Fox - October 21, 2015 Reply

What would you consider the common outcome for the copyright holder?

swabbie Robbie - October 21, 2015 Reply

As I see it the tiny house movement is rife with copyright infringement. How many builders sold clones of Jay Shafer’s designs as their own just because they modified a few details?

I worked for a company that made earth augers for skid steer loaders. We were at a trade show when we noticed a big skid steer manufacturer introduced their own auger. It was identical down to the the exact dimensions and design flairs our company had to identify their brand.

The crux of the biscuit was that it was not copyright infringement. Copyright did not cover such industrial or physical design elements but design patent does. The company had a design patent, however, we found such patents are only as good as your ability to defend it. i.e. how much money can you afford to put into lawyers? Note: You cannot copyright or patent an earth auger or a house. They have been in common usage since Archemedes invented his screw, and since humans branched out from caves.

The case for the builder falls apart if he used the plans he contracted for as single licensed use but build more off of those plans. If he had build his own versions of the house he 1st build off the plans = create his own plans incorporating his own design ideas and dimensions and building off of those he would be safe. Or as safe as the majority of companies building tiny houses over the last decade or so. If the court decides against this use as well, then most commercial builders of tiny houses are in big trouble as well.

Ed Bollen - October 21, 2015 Reply

I regret this article contains a number of errors regarding copyright law, which is far from simple. There are lots of issues to be considered in the area of copyright, and if you believe you have created something that is entitled to protection, the best thing to do is consult with an attorney experienced in the area of copyright law.

Gary in Bama - October 21, 2015 Reply

I feel for the seller but if the buyer isn’t selling plans and there was no patented information. The buyer can change here and there and claim its a different product. The one thing that will happen is both parties will be dissatisfied and the LAWYERS WILL MAKE MONEY.

Stuart - October 21, 2015 Reply

I’m interested in this for two reasons. First, I’m a 3rd year law student, and second, I would love to build a tiny home some day.

From a legal standpoint, works of architecture are copyrightable. Designs for a tiny home are certainly architecture, and do qualify for protection.

That being said, not everything is copyrightable. It has to be an “original work of art.” In other words, the tiny home would have to be so unique, as to qualify as “original,” and not merely a cookie cutter design that many tiny homes use. I would love to see pictures, if they are available!

But wholly aside from the copyright issue, this is a very clear case of a contract breach. The builder purchased plans under an agreement, but totally disregarded those terms. Certainly, there is a case merely on that basis.

Either way, let’s be good to each other, people! Respect each other’s rights, and let’s help grow the tiny home movement!

    Andrew M. Odom - October 22, 2015 Reply

    If you contact me directly at andodom@gmail.com Stuart I can give you more details and perhaps put you in touch with the plaintiff.

    swabbie Robbie - October 22, 2015 Reply

    I see this case as three major elements:

    1. Copyright of the plans: intellectual property.

    2. Contractual agreement to use the plans for one build only. Many such agreements also have provisions for paying a fee to the designer of the plans for making more builds off of those plans. The sailboat plans I bought from Glen-L was like that.

    3. Design patent of the tiny house. This is the main difficulty. Most house design have been in common public use for a long time. Most of the tiny houses I have seen over the last decade are taken from elements of existing styles of houses. Hard to create new unique elements that would be either copyrightable or design patentable.
    as many know clothing designs are for the most part un-copyrightable or patentable. Only some elements such as the zipper or Velcro were patentable.

    In essence the structural components of housing is standardized and will be followed by any commercial builder. A builder can look at a picture of a house and build something that looks just like it without worry. It is when using purchased plans and violating a contract where the trouble is.

    I had a lawyer contact me years ago on behalf of a author of a book of illustrations of tropical fish. He claimed I copied his fish in my titanium jewelry design. He wanted compensation for all items I sold and to cease and desist. I replied by registered letter to the lawyer saying “Only God can copyright a fish”. I also sent a copy of the photograph I had taken of the fish I used with date taken. Never heard from them again.

      Henry - October 23, 2015 Reply

      Your reference to clothing designs points to a weakness in arguments that weak or no copyright protections would stifle creativity and availability of creative works. There are knock-offs of high fashion clothing available within days of the original’s release and it does not seem to stifle those creations. While I do not begrudge someone from profiting from their works, nor do I oppose limited copyright and patent protections, I do not buy the argument that creative people would forego making their creations absent such protections. Creativity and invention themselves are often unstoppable forces.

Brian - October 22, 2015 Reply

It was my understanding that in the United States copyright was automatically assumed on creation of a qualifying work. There is no need to go through the copyright office unless you wanted to. I draw house plans for a living and the same restrictions apply. You purchase a copy of the plans and the price you pay determines how many times you may use those plans. However, you are free to do what you wish with the house you build.

Stuart - February 4, 2016 Reply

I’ve been following this story for a while. I’ve decided that it’s not as cut and dried as the author would make it seem. While architectural works are copyrightable, not all buildings qualify as “architecture.” Copyright regulations specifically exclude mobile homes from copyright protection. Whether a tiny home is a “mobile home” for purposes of the copyright act, however, will need to be decided by the courts. Until then, it’s not certain that tiny home designs are copyrightable.

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