Shiver Me Timber: “Pirate Architects” Steal Design, Set to Finish Construction on Their Version Before the Original is Completed.
In a short film at the start of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” a gaggle of downtrodden elderly (English) accountants rebel against their new, younger (American) bosses. They commandeer the company building, ripping it from its foundations, literally turning it into a pirate ship, and sail away into the sunset, towards the ends of the earth.
But what, if anything, do the pirates of the “Crimson Permanent Assurance” have to do with intellectual property law?
Like Python’s bandits, “Pirate Architects” in China are renowned for their prowess in the business of “building theft.”
Last month, British star-architect (or “starchitect”) Zaha Hadid looked set to file suit against a Chinese developer whom she claims stole one of her architecture designs. Hadid designed the Wangjing SOHO complex—a futuristic set of curved buildings, sculpted in stone and etched with wave-like aluminum bands—which is now under construction in Beijing. A nearly identical set of buildings is also currently under construction in Chongquing, a megacity of 32 million in southwest China. Chongquing Meiquan is the developer behind this project, known at the “Meiquan 22nd Century” building.
Hadid sent Chongquing Meiquan a “cease and desist” letter in May 2012. The letter was ignored and the Chinese developer launched an advertising campaign claiming that his firm “never meant to copy, only … to surpass.”
The SOHO and Meiquan projects are now locked in a race for completion, and the Chongquing project looks like it is pulling ahead: Meiquan is set to complete construction this year, while Hadid’s project won’t be finished until 2014.
This is not the first time that Chinese firms have replicated internationally-renowned pieces of architecture. There is a 108 meter high Eiffel Tower replica in Tianducheng, near Shanghai, a slowly-emerging version of the Manhattan skyline in Tianjin, northern China, and an exact duplication of the entire Austrian village of Hallstadtt—a protected UNESCO World Heritage site—in Huizhou city, southern China.
China does have intellectual property laws that protect works of architecture, and most lawyers believe that Hadid could win if the suit went to trial. They caution however, that the remedies would likely be limited to compensation or other similar types of damages, since courts would be hesitant to order a defendant to knock-down a newly completed, multi-million dollar complex.
United State copyright law also protects architectural works, and provides them with the same protection as any other original work. 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(8). The Act also places two express limits on these rights—in addition to general copyright exceptions, such as Fair Use. The first is that once constructed, architects cannot prevent the owners of the physical building from altering or destroying the building. 17 U.S.C. § 120(b). The second provides that architects cannot prevent others from making, distributing, or publicly displaying pictorial representations of the building, so long as the building is ordinarily visible from a public place. 17 U.S.C. 120(a). Thus, like in China, U.S. architects also have recourse against unauthorized construction projects replicating their buildings.
Hadid was initially excited by the prospect of her work popping up in other places, but has since stepped back: “It is fine to take from the same well,” she says, “but not from the same bucket.”
While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, trends indicate the culture of “duplitecture”—as it has come to be known—is on the rise and is showing no signs of stopping: it will be a long battle yet with the brigands known at “pirate architects.”