Patents Shaped Early 20th Century Architecture

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Robison Wells
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Can architects patent or trademark their designs? Many debate the question of architectural ownership. Some designers find contentment in public recognition of their buildings as landmark achievements; Others seek documented claims on their work. The 1852 English Patents Reform and the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty introduced pathways to protect architects' and designers' IPs.

Professor Peter Christensen, the author of, The Architectural Patent: Inventing Modernity, stated: "It's entirely tied to the Industrial Revolution. You have the birth of the factory, the birth of mass production, and, as a result, you have all of these issues come up with how architecture fits into that equation."

It's easy to think of prefab construction as an innovation. However, Christensen points out in his book that such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and even Thomas Edison played with ideas to mass-produce houses assembly-line style in the same manner that automobile companies assemble cars.

When it comes to architecture, where do patents enter the equation? Christiansen says: "The style of a building, in the technological sense, that a patent is supposed to measure, is not an invention, even though we understand it to be an artistic invention. Flat roofs, as opposed to pitched roofs, is not an invention—unless there's something about it which enhances the collection of water, for example, or the amount of daylight that the house gets."

Some architects and designers, nevertheless, seek patents on their work. Frank Lloyd Wright advertised floorplans for his iconic Prairie homes in Reader's Digest, enabling people to pick out homes as quickly as selecting refrigerators. Most of Wright's patented designs flopped.

Christiansen calls the marriage of architectural invention and intellectual property a "momentous and deeply understudied change in 19th and 20th Century culture. Ultimately, that marriage fundamentally altered the ways in which buildings have been not only conceived but designed, engineered, constructed, and promoted."

The issue of architectural design patents and trademarks continues as some pursue legal design ownership documentation.

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