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Intellectual Property Issues for Architects, Engineers, & Surveyors

Randall W. Whitesides, P.E.

Course Outline

The course is a compilation of subjects, definitions, and personal interpretations of issues dealing with intellectual property.  After a generalized introduction, the scope narrows to those aspects of intellectual property that will be of particular interest to architects, engineers, and surveyors.  A course of this length cannot possibly cover every aspect of intellectual property in detail, but the basics will be received by the student.

This course contains the opinions and ideas of its author.  It is intended to provide helpful and informative material on the subject matter covered.  It is presented with the understanding that the author is not engaged in rendering legal or, in regards to this course, other professional services.  If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the student is encouraged to consult appropriate counsel for advice specific to his or her individual circumstance.

This course includes a multiple choice quiz at the end.

Learning Objective

At the conclusion of this course the student will:

Intended Audience

This course will benefit any practicing technical professional who produces documents such as plans and specifications as part of his or her normal business activity.

Course Introduction

We truly live in a litigious society today. There are many ways to interpret most legal matters. Even with benefit of established laws, intellectual property, its rights, and its protection are broadly interpretative. Each year many cases are litigated regarding the infringement, licensing, and transfer of intellectual property.

Intellectual property is any number of types of products of the human mind. It can be thought of as those products of literary expression such as books and articles; those of artistic creativity such as art, film, and musical composition; and those of scientific and technical nature such as engineering and architectural graphics and specifications. Included in the definition of intellectual property are inventions, service marks, and trademarks. Intellectual property, for the most part, is property that is derived from the mind rather than the hand. It has, by its very nature, potential monetary, and therefore commercial value. Architects, Engineers, and Surveyors should consider work products and project information as intellectual property with intrinsic value that should be appropriately guarded. We will see later why it is important to designate these products as instruments of service when preparing professional service agreements.

It is quite amazing how few categories of items fall outside of the broad interpretation of intellectual property. Examples of items, which are not considered intellectual property, are historical events, common information, mere facts, and items in the public domain. General accepted facts are things such as directory listings (which are nothing more than compilations of non-creative items) and blank forms. Items become public domain after expiration of any right or law protecting them as intellectual property. Works of the Federal government (funded by taxes) become, for the most part, immediate property of the public. Please note that products of state and local governments and products created by third parties for the Federal government are not necessarily considered in the public domain.

Course Content

The course content is in a PDF file (63 KB) Interllectual_Property.pdf. You need to open or download this document to study this course.

Course Summary

Intellectual property covers a broad range of subjects and topics. Technical graphics, specifications, surveys, reports, and the like, are the forms of intellectual property associated with Architects, Engineers, and Surveyors. These forms of expression, fixed in a tangible medium, are known as instruments of service. By copyright common law, ownership of these instruments of service is established at the time of their creation.

The technical professional must exercise the control of ownership of instruments of service in order to limit risk and liability. Simultaneously, he or she must also be cognizant of the ownership and rights of others with whom they may be professionally associated. The Land Surveyor is particularly vulnerable to loss of control of instruments of service because of existing legal precedent with regards to public records. While the Land Surveyor may retain copyright ownership of certain instruments, this is little consolation when current public law encourages freedom of information and unlimited access and use of instruments of service placed in archives by the necessity of legal compliance.

While copyright registration is a legally forceful and relatively inexpensive means of protection, it is rarely pursued by the technical practitioner probably because it is assumed somewhat cumbersome and time restrictive. The design professional can alternatively assume a proactive or passive approach to registration because copyright registration can be accomplished ex post facto. Appropriate service agreement (contract) language is of utmost importance in the retention of intellectual property ownership.

Additional Resources

The Nolo Press, which offers self-help information on a variety of legal subjects, has information on copyright law. Look for the intellectual property topic under the Legal Encyclopedia. Point your browser to

The United States Copyright Office website at offers regulations, guidelines, forms and links to other useful copyright websites. Application forms in PDF format can be actually filled out on-line at this government site and printed.

An excellent legal search engine is available at Navigate around the website until you locate subject matter dealing with copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.

The law firm of Jeffrey R. Kuester can provide you with copyright information sources via their website at


Once you finish studying the above course content, you need to take a quiz to obtain the PDH credits.

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DISCLAIMER: The materials contained in the online course are not intended as a representation or warranty on the part of or any other person/organization named herein. The materials are for general information only. They are not a substitute for competent professional advice. Application of this information to a specific project should be reviewed by a registered professional engineer. Anyone making use of the information set forth herein does so at their own risk and assumes any and all resulting liability arising therefrom.