Architectural Patents: On what Grounds?

Courtesy of

We have all heard of patenting building systems, building technologies, details and of course, products.  But what about patenting architecture?  Jack Martin brought this to our attention in light of  successfully getting an for the design of a store in the Upper West Side in New York City, asking “On what grounds can you patent architecture?”  The inventors listed in the patent are architects Karl Backus, Peter Bohlin and George Bradley of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Robert Bridger, Benjamin L. Fay, Steve Jobs and Bruce Johnson for a design that Architect’s Newspaper describes as “meticulous and seamless as its clients”.

So, what is the extent of patenting architecture?  Structural systems, materials, details, conceptual strategies, the look of it?  We interpret architecture as a language in itself, but it is difficult to conceive of copyright infringement when it comes to architectural design because it is difficult to pin-point exactly what makes all of the parts of a building a copyrighted entity. What if Le Corbusier patented his designs?  Mies van der RoheFrank Lloyd Wright?  Their work and strategies have been copied and implemented all over the world to varying degrees.  So, where is the line between protecting an original idea and creating a barrier against progress? Or does this commercialization of architecture fuel competition to design better or design around strategies already patented? More after the break.

Courtesy of – Architecture Patent to Apple
Apple uses the architecture and interior design – down to the details of presenting its merchandise – as a form of branding.  The image it portrays and attitude that it evokes is consistent with its products – sleak, clean, streamlined and user-friendly.  Looking at the selection of materials, the brightness of the lights and finishes, it is like looking at the three dimensional version of the iMac, iPad or iPhone display.  The architecture has become so familiar through the numerous stores that Apple has – check out the evolution of the design here – that even without logos and merchandise many of us would recognize their interiors.
Courtesy of Apple via
But with branding aside, it seems that for centuries architecture has always been interpreted as patent-free – open to the design community to build upon, improve, innovate and re-invent.  So what does it mean for architecture when the U.S. Government granted Apple its first architectural patent on November 15th, 2011 for the design of a store in the Upper West Side in New York City?  The design features an all glass facade and glass canopy, opening the entire interior space to the street and to the sky.  It is bounded by stone walls on either side.  The components of this design are not necessarily original and the patent, which can be viewed here, only gives a cursory view of the design, alluding to the materials and assembly that is to be used. It has also been announced, according to, that Apple plans to build similar models of this design in two other locations, one in Palo Alto in Northern California and Third Street Promenade in Southern California.
Courtesy of USPTO – Architectural Patent to Leroy S. Buffington
This concept of patenting architecture commercializes a field already starting to produce “Starchitects”, architects whose designs are well known and sought after for their particular style – so is it style that we are looking to patent?  Frank GehryZaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind come to mind, but even their ideas have started and arose out of design movements that have evolved, blending over the years with technological progress.  Even some patented designs have striking similarities to completed projects of today, like this design below patented in 1989 by Radu Vero, which has a resemblance to the HSB Turning Torso Building in Sweden by Santiago Calatrava.
Courtesy of USPTO – Architectural Patent to Radu Vero
The Architecture & Copyright Law suggests that all projects as completed works should be protected and patented – but the procedure requires two steps because architecture is interpreted in two ways.  First there are the drawings and specifications which fall under “technical drawings” and then there is the completed structure which is registered as “architectural work”.  But even if a work is patented there so many standards in the industry that who can say where to draw the line?
Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Architectural Patents: On what Grounds?" 23 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Sep 2014. <>


  1. Thumb up Thumb down -2

    Yes, patents! More property rights! No more open source, creative commons and all that other bullsh*t!

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Well I guess Karl Backus, Peter Bohlin and George Bradley of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Robert Bridger, Benjamin L. Fay, Steve Jobs (deceased can’t get a patent) and Bruce Johnson better get ready to battle because it would appear Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership)who did the Rose Center for Earth and Space provided the majority of the inspiration and even means and methods of construction, which Apple has jocked the hell out of.

    If any of them say otherwise, I’d love to see them take a polygraph.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    all architecture is derivative – there is no original thought that can be patented – please get serious, and get rid of this architecture patent bulls#!t… what a joke.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I think having your design called a “crappy version of _____) is hard enough, let alone a lawsuit for infringement. You cant steal a style.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    How would you ever begin to enforce this? Unless you watermark your glass with “patent pending” or have a team of unpaid architectural interns scouring arch daily for infringements, this just becomes legal fodder and marketing through discussion. No harm no foul.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    corb and others modernists used to patent as industrial label their structures (like the DOMINO one in the 1910′)..

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I’m an architect and i think his creazy, apple is dangerous for the creation.
    Architecture is an open source world, we know who have make architecture with computer (like Zahadid or Ghery) but a style or a detail or other. A good architect and a good architecture is a space who works and a symbiosis with structure and human perception.

    knowledge must remain free

    Architecture is a knowloedge, is a space who poeple live and not a product of industry.

    the idea must be owned by its inventor, but must remain open access. not to patent

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Ridiculous… Agreed architecture is open source. It’s not even like the architecture they are trying to patent is particularly inspirational!

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    A little clarification might help here. The patent in question is a design patent, in which the ornamental aspects of a design are protected. Such a patent will not protect an “idea,” or a “style.” Instead, a design patent is infringed when a product is made that is so similar to the patented design as to decieve an ordinary person into believing that it is the same product.
    In other words, if someone were to construct a building that was so similar to the patented design that an ordinary person would be fooled into thinking it was an Apple store, Apple might have a case. Even then, Apple would need to show that the ordinary person would have been fooled even if he or she had had a knowledge of any similar structures that had been designed or built before the patented design was created. Furthermore, infringement would need to be shown based on ornamental features alone; strictly functional elements are not considered. It is a fairly tough standard to meet.
    On the other hand, design patents are relatively inexpensive, and can be very powerful tools for deterring or shutting down outfits that make knock-offs or exact copies of popular products.

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