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Published 14 March 2022
For developers acquiring sites which already have planning permission, it is vital to make sure you have also purchased the right to use the planning drawings to implement the scheme. The UK Intellectual Property Enterprise Court recently confirmed the law in this area, providing a useful reminder of the distinction between planning permission and licences to copyright in planning drawings.
Planning drawings are the architectural drawings or plans submitted as part of an application for planning permission.
In the UK, there will inevitably be copyright in planning drawings unless they are an exact copy of an earlier set of drawings. Copyright protects original artistic works, which will include architect’s plans. These have to involve some element of expressive or creative choice in producing the work, but this is a very low hurdle and would be met in almost every case of a professional architect working on a design.
In general, the person who created the drawings or plans owns the copyright. If they are an in-house designer or architect, copyright will be owned by their employer. If they work for a firm of architects, copyright will be owned by the firm.
Where a developer does not employ the designer, the developer normally receives a licence from the designer so that they can use the plans. Sometimes this licence is limited to different project phases with stage payments. The licence is often not assignable without permission from the designer, which means it will not transfer automatically with a plot purchase.
It’s usual practice for planning application documents, including planning drawings, to be posted on a planning portal and made available for public inspection.
Although anyone can usually view, download and print planning drawings available on a planning portal, they can only do so for very limited purposes specified on the planning portal (e.g. commenting on a planning application during the consultation period, comparing with earlier applications or checking that a development complies with the relevant planning permission). In addition, it’s usual for the planning drawings to include copyright notices indicating ownership and prohibiting copying without permission from the copyright owner.
Copying or using electronic versions of the drawings without permission is copyright infringement.
The grant of planning permission is usually conditional on the development being carried out in accordance with the planning drawings. However, this does not mean that anyone implementing the planning permission is automatically given the right to use the planning drawings. You have to buy that separately from the owner of the copyright in the planning drawings.
If a party has paid an independent architect for planning drawings, they should check their agreement first to see what it says – normally there will be an express licence describing what rights the developer has. If there isn’t an express right, the court may sometimes read into the agreement the right to use the planning drawings, but the existence and scope of an automatic or implied licence to use the planning drawings will depend on the circumstances. For example:
As described above, the new developer should not assume they have any rights to copy the planning drawings unless they have bought these from the copyright owner. This is illustrated by two recent cases:
If a developer is considering taking over a development where planning permission has already been granted, it should:
 Lennox Estates Ltd v S&W Ventures Ltd  EWHC 3323 (IPEC) Blair v Osborne & Tomkins  2 Q.B. 78 Stovin-Bradford v. Volpoint Properties Ltd  1 Ch. 1007 Signature Realty Ltd v Fortis Developments Ltd  EWHC 3583 (Ch)
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