Our Commercial Disputes Associate, Guto Llewelyn, looks at the dangers of copyright contained in planning permissions.

In the recent High Court case of Signature Realty Limited v Fortis Developments Limited (and another), it was ruled that a property developer had infringed copyright by using architects’ plans that were part of the existing planning permission. Here’s some of the background. 

Signature paid an architect to draw plans for student accommodation on a site (which they hoped to buy) in Sheffield city centre. They also acquired planning permission but their plans to purchase the site fell through.  

Then Fortis came along and bought the site with the benefit of the planning permission. Fortis developed the land in accordance with the original planning permission which contained a condition that the development would be carried out in accordance with those original drawings.

Signature argued that Fortis had no right to use the drawings and claimed that Fortis’ unauthorised use of the drawings infringed their copyright - the Court agreed. 

There is no intellectual property right in a planning permission – as it relates to the land and anyone may use it so long as they satisfy its conditions.

Copyright does, however, subsist in architectural drawings and this decision supports that. In coming to his decision, the Judge dismissed Fortis’s claim that it had an implied licence from the architect because it had been the prospective developers (Signature) who had employed the architects, not the seller. This was the case despite the fact that Fortis had paid a premium for the planning permission relating to the land.

By the time the case reached the Court the development had been completed and sold on to a third party. The Court determined that damages would be payable.

So, architects’ drawings can be protected by copyright and you may need authority from the copyright owner before you can use them.  Failing to do so could be very costly for a developer, as it was for Fortis in the case.