Copyrighted architectural design work for a previous employer
December 10, 2014 12:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm an unregistered architectural designer with about 12 years experience in the architectural field. After 5 months with a residential design firm I was let go for lack of work. I am currently seeking employment and wrote to my former employer requesting copies of the design documents that I had produced, these being the only proof that I have of the quality and suitability of my work. She replied that I was not entitled to use any of them as they are federally copyrighted intellectual property of the firm.

None of the projects have been built yet - they are still all "on paper".

I really need to be able to have something in my portfolio to show potential employers, so my question is, what are my options here? Am I absolutely barred from using images of my designs? I do have some older versions of the projects as some of the work was done at my home office.

On review (a previous copyright question from a graphic designer) I should clarify that I am not looking to put this work on a web page, only to print hard copies for my portfolio which I would carry with me into an interview.

Any advice and/or workarounds/strategy appreciated, thanks!
posted by bird internet to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Since I have not reviewed any of the documents, this should not be considered reliable legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship.

Based on what's given here, first, regarding copyright, whether or not you own the copyright will depend on your employment contract with your former employer. Can't comment on the basis of the information here.

But if I understand your question, copyright is irrelevant because you're not intending to make any copies or publish the work, nor even use it in a future building.

Morally speaking, you're entitled to have a copy of your own work.

The statement that "I was not entitled to use any of them" indicates that the person you spoke to didn't really understand what is going on. You're not intending to "use them" in any way that would violate any copyright, assuming that the employer does own the copyright. (However, this answer might change if there's a specific confidentiality provision in your employment contract.)

Possibly go back to the employer and speak to someone else who's a little more flexible and understanding about helping you out.

In your interviews, you should have the future employer agree to keep what you show them confidential and not use it for any purpose. A written non-disclosure agreement would be preferable.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:20 PM on December 10, 2014

Does your former employer understand that you just want these to use as part of your CV, and not as part of any actual architectural design projects? I'd start by clarifying that.
posted by alms at 1:23 PM on December 10, 2014


My request was for copies of the designs for my portfolio, for the purpose of obtaining new employment, not for publishing, to the web or in any public format.

JimN2TAW, if I understand you, you mean to say that you do not believe that the above use is a violation of copyright?

Oh, and, I did not have a signed contract - a handshake deal from the get go.
posted by bird internet at 1:36 PM on December 10, 2014

It sounds like they have all the files at their office, so you won't be able to get copies unless you convince them anyway? What I'd try is asking if they'd be willing to print out a single copy (maybe watermarked) of each image so that you could use it in your portfolio. Offer to pay for the printing if necessary. That way they aren't really giving you anything you can use in a way that's detrimental to them, but you still can show your work.
posted by MsMolly at 1:45 PM on December 10, 2014

Not quite, MsMolly - as stated I do have some older versions of the projects since I worked occasionally from home.
posted by bird internet at 1:47 PM on December 10, 2014

Other professions have the same problem, and the solution for most of them has been to create their own unencumbered "demo" pieces.

...which, yes, is a lot of extra effort but there are definitely hiring managers (I have met some myself) who would refuse to hire anyone who showed them work that they believed to be the property of a prior employer.

I would recommend creating new work, even though it'll be a PITA.
posted by aramaic at 1:49 PM on December 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Unfortunately, about all you can do is appeal to them on the basis of "accepted industry practice" to allow the use of files for portfolio use. I've run into similar issues as a graphic designer, where clients would try to impose control over my use of the work I did for them, even though I had all the files. Some business owners just don't get it.

Did you make any friends with the other designers while you were there? Friends who might be open to getting the files to you surreptitiously? I've had to do that, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:04 PM on December 10, 2014

Well, again - I do already have most of the files that I need, just not the most up-to-date versions..So, theoretically I could just print them out and carry them with me to any interviews and maybe lead with some feeler type questions if things are going well..but this is a very small town and a very small community within this town, so I don't want to step on any toes.

It really sucks because I did some great work for them and there's no reason I shouldn't be working if there is work to be done.

*sigh - it's back to scrounging for the mo, I guess.
posted by bird internet at 2:24 PM on December 10, 2014

Knowing the architecture field, this seems really weird. It seems like a totally normal thing to include work done for a previous employer in a portfolio. So, I would try again and reiterate that you don't want the materials for anything other than your portfolio, and that this is a standard industry thing to do.

On the other hand, unless I'm missing something in your question, it sounds like you have worked in architecture for 12 years, but only worked at this particular firm for 5 months. It might not be worth fighting over 5 months of work, and just use sample work from the other 11.5 years of your employment. Your former employer is being a douche about this, but you might not want to burn the bridge there and push really hard since this is not your only employment/source of work samples.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:27 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Major douchebaggery, no doubt about that.

rainbowbrite, have you ever come across a talentless hack who doesn't know a 2x4 from a toothpick whose daddy started the firm? That's who this is!

OK, but thanks everybody..With the exception of my still open question to Jim, I guess I've got about as good an answer as I'm going to get. Really appreciate the feedback!
posted by bird internet at 2:32 PM on December 10, 2014

If it were me and there were folks at the company who liked me, I would ask one of them, by phone (do not leave a paper or email trail) or in person over coffee if they would mind giving you the files. And if they agreed, give them a thumb drive so they don't get themselves into trouble emailing it to you. I've been able to get around jerks on occasion like this. In short, nthing Thorzdad.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:42 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are two distinct questions here - there's the common industry practice and then there's the law. It is common for creative artists to maintain a portfolio of their work. That does not make it legal.

In the USA, in general, work done as an employee is a "work for hire". If you are a contractor to your previous employer, the distinction is a bit more vague and requires a written agreement to be determined as a "work for hire".

There is no recognized legal right to one's own work in the USA. In particular, there's actually the opposite - the presumption is that if you are paid for a work as an employee, that the work is not your's unless you both parties explicitly agree otherwise. I make no comment about a "moral right", because that's a question for philosophers and not Metafilter. There's also no recognized right to print a copyrighted work without violating copyright - one does not need to profit from violating copyright to commit copyright infringement. None of this indicates that you'll actually get in trouble for doing what you want to do. However, that does not mean your prior employer needs to enable you to do so.

Further, I'd like to emphasize aramaic's point that what you want to do is not necessarily a good idea. I happen to be an industry where employer intellectual property is highly valued, and I would immediately reject any candidate that brought me something from their current/previous work. Further, I would have to report that candidate to my company's legal department to avoid the perception of stealing trade secrets.
posted by saeculorum at 9:49 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Replying to your question to me above, offhand I don't believe that privately showing your artwork -- rightfully in your possession -- to a third party would be an act of copyright infringement under 17 USC 106 et seq. I say that off the cuff and it should not be relied upon.

However, this cprt infringement question is nearly meaningless because we can't tell from your question who owns the copyright; and regardless, you may be violating your agreement with your employer, or state trade secret law, or other issues such as industry ethics and customs, as explained above by the other posters.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:34 PM on December 10, 2014

And see this if you haven't already. Whether your work falls under "work for hire" or not is an issue we can't resolve here without a lot more information.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:43 PM on December 10, 2014

You might want to be careful. If you previous employment contract indicated that the items were "work for hire", they probably included a clause about all materials being the property of the employer and should be returned to the employer. Technically just having them in your possession could be counted as theft (physical or intellectual property), regardless of what you want them for.

This is fairly common in the software industry (where I work), but actual prosecution is rare. YMMV.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2014

It might be worth a call to the Architectural licensing board for your state, as they are typically the forum for this kind of dispute (well, moreso if you were licensed, and your boss wanted to get you disciplined). I am a licensed architect in Oregon, and it is absolutely expected practice that you can use images/renderings of work completed at previous employers, as long as the work is properly credited, and your role on that project is accurately portrayed.
posted by misterbrandt at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am in the process of getting an architectural license and just tested on this issue earlier this week. First, some of the other comments are wrong, architectural drawings do not fall under "artwork" copyright law. Per the AIA contract documents, the copyright for the drawings 100% does belong to the firm, not to you (or the client, even, unless certain circumstances). This is in part because of the legal liability of construction drawings and also because of intellectual property as it relates to "instruments of service" for a business.

However. In the real world, it's common practice to use your work with previous employers to show potential employers. Maybe they would let you use drawing watermarked with their logo and a "not for construction" stamp? Or maybe pixel images of the drawings that wouldn't be reproducible for construction? Depending on your relationship with the owner, I might push to ask what their concern is and emphasize it's just meant for use in your portfolio. With 12 years experience though, I bet they're worried you're going to steal their details, and maybe their clients and that's why they're not wanting to allow you to use the drawings. And if most of the projects are unbuilt they could be worried about wholesale 'borrowing' of the designs (maybe a bit paranoid..).
posted by annie o at 9:59 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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