Dear Matthew: Imitation - flattery or theft?

Written by: Matthew Turner
Published on: 10 Jul 2014

BD’s career doctor advises an architect who feels her work has been stolen by a former employer

Question: A firm I used to work for copied my idea. Now it has won a commission for a scheme that I basically designed, albeit for a completely different place. Should I consider legal action?

Answer: Copyright for architects is a complex area and not my specialism. However, I know this much. There is a reason why legal battles on copyright cases are pursued between the likes of Samsung and Apple. For them, slogging it out over whether one company has a patent on curved corners to their electronic gizmos makes sense. A decision in their favour can lead to the sale of millions of identical objects that can easily pay back the lawyers’ fees many times over.

I am sorry if this pricks your balloon but a couple of architects and a single building do not compare to this. At this scale, the financial implications make the legal route, usually a costly one, somewhat unrealistic.

It is not clear from your question whether you were employed by this firm when your idea was replicated. If so, then the authorship of it is really collective, if not all theirs - you were being paid by them. I quite understand why you feel annoyed by seeing what you think as yours being used by others. After all, a sense of authorship is hard-wired into many architects. We trade on our ideas, yet in order to do that we often have to expose them upfront to win the job. It isn’t something you can shroud in secrecy.

However, let’s face it, most office work is team work and a good deal of architectural borrowing goes on, and always has done. In fact, not much is new. Many would say we are all recycling something most of the time, and that is a good thing. Perhaps this is more a case of simultaneously coming up with a good idea?

So while it may be galling, you could see this positively as an affirmation of your skills as a designer and use this confirmation to move on to your next great project.

Ultimately, in your place, I would allow your copyright concerns in this case to pass as water under the bridge. But as you let it pass, use it to learn about yourself and what drives you.

What specifically was it that you felt aggrieved by, and what would you want? Recognition? Money? An apology? This is a helpful indication of your motivations, knowledge of which may pay off in the future.

Architect Matthew Turner of has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

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