PictureYes, this image in the public domain.
This past week there was quite a stir when the Daily Mail published a story discussing an obscure provision in the EU copyright law that, on its face, appears to require any person taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower at night must get approval from some outfit called the Societe d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel. Yes, you read that previous sentence properly: it included a reference to both copyright and a building. And yes, the rules only restrict taking pictures of the tower at night and sharing them; daytime pictures are A-okay. At this point, you might be a little confused about several things. Quite frankly, I am too, I mean after all, being in the public and freely accessible to anyone, isn’t it unfair to deprive someone of the ability to photograph something? Aren’t these buildings designed for the express purpose of giving others inspiration and allowing them to incorporate the building into their own artwork? Ay, my head is spinning already, as it usually does when copyright I dissect copyright issues. Despite being a seemingly simple idea and legal concept, copyright laws have evolved (or devolved, depending on the context for discussion) into a complex web of statutes and case law protecting not only standard faire, but more advanced and nuanced “artwork as well”.

With that narrative in place, let’s dive in here and break it down.

First, buildings can be copyrighted. More specifically, architectural works are protected. They are protected even though they are “useful”, being made primarily for the housing of people and things. Architectural works and architectural plans are both protected as copyrightable works. When you think about it, this makes sense because architecture, as a form of practical artwork, can be just as much of an original creation as can a painting or sculpture. If an architect spent years designing a critically-acclaimed building only to have elements of it copied by another drafter and re-created on the cheap, it seems wrong that the copier should get off scott-free, especially since architectural plans and drawings are so easy to copy.