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Patrick Barthet, founded The Barthet Firm, an 11-lawyer construction law firm in Miami, and regularly contributes to construction law blog.

Can Survey Plans Be Copyrighted?

Are surveyor’s drawings entitled to the same protections as an architect’s blueprints? That depends.

December 14, 2017

The leading case on this issue comes out of New York. A surveyor prepared a site plan for the construction of a new building. The plan consisted of a depiction of the grade, land contours, and a proposed location for the building and utilities. During construction, the original surveyor was terminated and an amended survey plan was used. The new plan was substantially similar to the original, prompting the first surveyor to file a copyright infringement suit.

The district court found that the site plan was not copyrightable and noted that the identification of existing physical characteristics of the site, such as elevation measurements and location of boundaries, are not afforded copyright protection. 

But the appellate court vacated the district court’s decision, noting that—along with the existing physical characteristics of the site, which do not contain any originality on the part of the author—the original survey plans also contained detailed specifications for the improvement of the site, and these were entitled to copyright protection.

Based on this ruling, merely identifying existing factual information about the site—abutting parcels, public streets, elevations, and existing structures—wouldn’t be copyrightable. However, detailed specifications for the preparation and improvement of the site showing original and creative authorship would be entitled to copyright protection.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. 



The question of whether a professional's plans (documents) can be copyright protected as a publisher's / author's novel is somewhat up for debate. Professional documents, like a lawyer's brief, are "work products" and the property of the professional producing them in the normal course of his/her service. They are unique to each project (case) and are, at the very minimum, not transferrable; except under special circumstances; such as a subdivision or one of a series intended to be duplicated on a single site. There are parts of those documents which are subject to patent laws, or design copyright; but these must be approached on a case by case basis.
Once under construction, the use of professional documents cannot be denied to a client even if the architect's or engineer's services have been terminated. At that point, the documents have passed into the public realm and can be used by the owner (client) for completion; but cannot be claimed by another professional as their product of service. So it is the case where specific "design" related information is included in the documents where protection of the professional's work product comes into play; but, at the very least whether simple recording of information or not the documents belong to the professional, not the client.

The question the title of article asks seems to be "can a survey drawing be copyrighted," and implies that it sometimes can be. The answer, that follows, only appears to confirm that the answer is no, it cannot be. What CAN be is an engineered site plan. An engineered site plan is not a survey. One documents existing conditions, and the other involves design. It seems the basis of the article is the conflation of one profession with another. The confusion probably stems from the fact that many Professional Engineers are also Professional Land Surveyors, but that does not make a site plan a survey.

Reading the article I see a very simple explanation. The Planet Earth is not copyrightable. The documents produced to alter the planet would be considered an intellectual idea. That intellectual idea could carry a copyright.

What is the case cite for case you discussed in your article?

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