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This Dubai design dispute raises the question: Can you copyright architecture?


The Dubai Frame. Did the Dubai Municipality just use a winning design proposal without permission? Image credit: Dubai Municipality

Al Gerard de la Cruz

Dubai is on top of the world again, but for the wrong reasons. A gilded, picture-frame-shaped observatory in the emirate, set for completion this year, is at the center of an intellectual property lawsuit filed in US courts against a government agency in the emirate.

Copyright lawyers worldwide have weighed in on the case, which involves a high-profile design competition hosted by Dubai Municipality and sponsored by the likes of ThyssenKrupp Elevator and UNESCO’s International Union of Architects.

Nexsen Pruet intellectual property lawyer Jeffrey Reichard recently told CNN that one is still entitled to file a lawsuit even if he or she has not registered the copyright to the intellectual property in question. “As long as you have fixed your design in a tangible medium and the other side has access to that design and then they create something that’s substantially similar then that’s infringement,” he said.

The Dubai Frame eerily evokes architect Fernando Donis’ winning entry for the 2008 ThyssenKrupp Elevator Architecture Award. Donis alleged that Dubai Municipality not only failed to ask for his consent in using his design proposal but also excluded him from the construction process and refrained from compensating his work.

Donis had charged that the winner’s contract was highly “unusual,” prohibiting him from promoting the structure through his company, among other predatory terms. He ultimately refused to sign the final contract in 2013.

Construction of the Frame started the following year. “We were shocked especially since the type of competition it was,” Donis told CNN.

The winner of the contest would retain copyright over the design, according to terms of the competition obtained by CNN. “There’s a difference between an idea versus an expression,” Reichard told CNN. “If the overarching idea is that ‘I want to copyright an idea of a large picture frame as a building to look over the Dubai skyline,’ that idea is not protectable under copyright. What would be protectable, though, is if you create blueprints for that idea, then those blueprints are protected.”

Like Donis’ blueprint, the Dubai Frame is 150 metres (492 feet) tall and located in Zabeel Park. The width of the structure in question is only 12 metres (39 feet) shorter than the original.

Last year, the Dubai Media Office tweeted a picture of Donis’ design to promote the Frame.

Property Report
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