In this week's practice section Mark van Hoorebeek tackles the issue of architectural patents. He offers three possible reasons for UK architects'resistance to taking legal action over intellectual property: they don't understand it; they can't afford it; they sincerely believe that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.While the first two may well be true, the third, though seemingly flippant, is the most significant. Imitation - or the use of precedent - is integral to any profession: lawyers win cases on the basis that a particular line of reasoning has been successful in the past; doctors would be deemed insane if they eschewed tried-andtested treatments in a constant bid for originality.Why should architects be any different?
As paid-up 'creatives'architects cannot, or should not, differentiate between practice and innovation. They are obliged to deliver the new. But the 'new', while relatively easy to define when it comes to technical innovation, is elusive when it comes to other aspects of design.
Specific buildings can be copyrighted, but this still allows plagiarists to pick and choose parts of the design as they choose. Houston architects Mark I Kaufman and Donald J Meeks have overcome the problem by taking out patents which protect ideas, as opposed to buildings.Their patents are concerned with massing and circulation: to claim that they have discovered new is akin to announcing the 'discovery'of a new colour. The fact that their solutions could well be 'discovered' by somebody else is demonstrated by the fact that a rival firm has hired patent attorneys to ensure that its designers don't unwittingly infringe on the patents.
Kaufman and Meeks have not simply prevented active copying, but have actually prevented other architects from adopting solutions which they may well have stumbled upon themselves.
Van Hoorebeek asks whether UK architects can learn from the US? Let's hope we don't. A commitment to shared knowledge saves everybody time and money, and defines architecture as a profession, as opposed to a random assortment of players, aggressively fighting for business and jealously protecting their patch.