Copyright Architecture

And while the idea of intellectual copyright for architecture is of course valid, it’s important to remember that this construct – of one’s ownership of an idea (that then becomes functional form) – is a relatively recent one. In fact, architecture wasn’t even covered under copyright law in the United States until 1990. As Guy Horton wrote in his article “Architecture and Crime”: “While we like to maintain the legal and moral high-ground, the protection of ‘original’ works or the rights of copy are, having developed in the eighteenth century, relatively recent creations in Western civilization. We haven’t been at it all that long and it came into being largely in order to protect commercial interests. It had nothing to do with any sudden moral epiphany about the sanctity of the original.”

Moreover, the line between copy and original, even in the eyes of the law, is awfully nebulous. As Michael Graves has noted, copyright protection is not for the pragmatic/technical characteristics of a building but only for the ”poetic language” of architecture. But when form follows function, whose to say where pragmatism ends and poetry begins? And with “copying”, from the masters who came before you or a colleague with whom you’ve shared ideas, being a foundational part of architectural design – does it really matter? So the next time we scoff at China’s “copies,” with no thought to their context nor history, I suggest taking a long, hard look at ourselves. We may recognize that what China is doing now is not so different from what we ourselves have done in the past (and what, with the improvement of digital technology, will only happen more in the future). Rather than sitting comfortably on our high-horses, we should begin to see the Chinese adaptation of architecture (and, for that matter, Architecture) as an opportunity to update our own beliefs and begin traversing the rift we have made for ourselves.