Technology drawings are protected under the visual arts section of the U.S. Copyright Act as technical, mechanical or architectural drawings, plans, blueprints or diagrams. Creators of these types of works own the exclusive rights to profit from the drawings as owners of original creations. With technology drawings, however, it is important to understand the scope of copyright protection and not to confuse the protection of the drawing with the protection of what the drawing depicts.
Technology drawings are any two-dimension representation of a technical, mechanical or architectural schematic. To copyright technology drawings, the artist must have produced an original concept and recorded it on paper or other media or by saving it in a computer file. Copyright law does not protect ideas or notions. Once the work is in writing or exists as a computer file, copyright in it attaches automatically. The artist owns the copyright in his technology drawings at this point, even if he never does anything else to protect his interests or does anything further to exploit the drawings.
If an artist plans to publish or sell his technology drawings, or otherwise exploit his work, it is advisable to register his copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration places the artist's rights under the protection of the U.S. Copyright Act. This allows the artist to sue others for infringement and receive damages. If an artist does not register his copyright with the Copyright Office, he has no legal standing to sue for infringement. He can ask an infringer to stop using his work, but he has no legal recourse if the infringer refuses. Registration is straightforward and can be accomplished by visiting the Copyright Office's website and using the eCO system to submit an electronic registration. Technology drawings are part of the visual arts (VA) class. As of publication date, the registration fee is $35.
The Object in the Drawing
Copyright registration protects the visual depiction of an object in a technology drawing, but does not protect the device or other matter that the drawings represent. To protect the thing that the drawings depict would require a patent. In that instance, the technology drawings would be submitted as invention drawings to depict the inner workings of the underlying invention.
The one situation when copyright protection is extended to the underlying device depicted by a technology drawing is if the drawing is architectural. The artist of an architectural drawing created after 1990 has a copyright in the building the drawing depicts under the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990. The artist must submit a separate registration application to register his copyright in the architectural work (the building). If he registers the drawings and the work at the same time, the office will accept one copy of the drawings or blueprints for both applications. The architectural work registration must also include photographs of the building and a separate filing fee.
Work for Hire
Technology drawings that are created in the course of a person's employment are considered works-for-hire. The "course of employment" can mean that the artist was a full- or part-time employee or an independent contractor of an employer. In a work-for-hire situation, the copyrights in the work belong to the employer. The artist has no ownership interest in the work and cannot register or exploit the copyrights.