Copyright on House Plans

Copyright in plans, drawings etc is regulated by the Commonwealth Copyright Act.
In other words copyright arises and exists by reason of the Act.
Under the Act there are no formal requirements and it is not necessary for any registration for copyright to exist and contrary to popular misconceptions copyright can exist whether or not the work bears the copyright symbol.

Ideas and concepts cannot be subject to copyright. Copyright only protects the expression of ideas in a material form.

Within the context of house plans architectural ideas and concepts are not themselves protected against copying. Copyright only attaches to the plans and buildings which comprise the material expression of such ideas and concepts.
If ideas are supplied by one person to a second person and that second person expresses or puts those ideas into material form it is the second person who is the author of the work and is entitled to claim copyright ownership.
Accordingly if a designer is approached by a client who orally describes their design and the designer then interprets those ideas into a plan or drawing, the designer becomes the author of copyright in the design.

An original owner may assign the copyright of their works to another person. Under the Act an assignment will have no effect unless it is in writing and signed off by the assignor - the original author.
Other than the requirement that assignments must be in writing there are no requirements as to the form that the assignment must take.
For example a designer could give the right to copy his plans and build houses with them to a builder in say Queensland and give that same right to a builder in Western Australia and at the same time retain rights to the other States and Territories.

A license exists when an owner of copyright permits another person to do an act which the owner, as a result of his copyright, has the right to do. For example, the permission for someone to publish a designers plan in a magazine but with the copyright retained by the designer. This occurs very commonly with prepared plans where a designer retains copyright ownership but allows copies to be made so that tendering etc can be carried out.
The plans in our database are an example where we provide a limited licence for the once only use of designs, or a variation of the design, for personal use.

Essentially copyright is infringed if a person who is not the owner of the copyright and without the licence of the owner, reproduces the work in a material form.
Copyright is infringed even if the copy is not identical to the plan that is being copied. Contrary to a common misconception making minor changes to the copy does not mean that copyright has not been infringed. The test is whether there has been a substantial reproduction.