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Architects, ‘pirates’ and A3 scanners

by on May 15, 2013

Your comments on the posts on this blog are a gold mine of information on how our customers are submitting applications electronically – or indeed not.

Over the coming weeks I will use some of these nuggets to form the a basis of a series of short articles around sector-specific topics, starting with:

‘A’ and architects.

I’ve heard it reported that on occasion original drawings and plans can be misappropriated by other applicants for use in their own submissions.

We’ve heard a couple of instances of this over the years but a comment from architectural designer Bob Ridgway raised this on a recent post about supporting documents.

 He found that some applications had been made using ‘pirated drawings’. 

Bob explains:

 “These drawings have simply been obtained from a neighbour or downloaded from the LPA website, the title box was crudely altered with a felt tipped marker pen and the drawings then used free of charge for a different address.

 “As this can be classed as a commercial use, then it is a criminal offence. “

 “The last thing that an LPA needs is being caught up in a legal case. We have had this happen to our practice but thankfully we were alerted by a planning officer who was good enough to tell me ‘off the record’ after a planning meeting…”

I would love to hear what the experience of other architects and professionals has been of ‘pirated drawings’?

Is it something the LPA needs to keep an eye on or perhaps something the Portal might be able to help with?

Please share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions.

On a related note, one of our account management team recently heard from a paper submitter that the main barrier to electronic submission for him was the hassle of going back and forth to the local bureau and the perceived cost of A3 scanners.

We know that many applicants put tremendous pride in the quality of their hand-drawn plans and rightly so.

However you may not be aware that the tools to transfer your high-quality drawings into a high-quality PDF may be more affordable than you think. The architect in question thought that scanners would be well over the £1,000 mark where in fact you can now get a decent-quality A3 scanner for around £150.

It would only take a couple of applications to absorb the cost of a scanner (and return trips to the bureau) and it would also let you process amendments quicker, too.

Today’s blog post was in no way sponsored by Epson, HP or any other manufacturer of flat-bed A3 scanners…

  1. Edward McGill RIBA permalink

    We had experience of drawings for a scheme for sixteen houses (for which we had gained consent) being amended and submitted for planning approval as a minor amendment by a firm of chartered surveyors. Our practice name was removed from the drawings prior to submission.The amendments were just “token” to form an amended application to avoid our ownership of copyright planning consent drawings . Worse still we had not been paid for our work for which fees were outstanding.

    We were only made aware of the situation by a “good will call” from the planning officer who dealt with the original application (He informed us that our client used this method on a regular basis, using an architect to gain consent, then using a firm of surveyors to submit “amended” plans for a small fee).This information allowed us time to appoint a solicitor and take legal action against the surveyors practice for breach of copyright as well as our now former client for outstanding fees and costs.

    The money recovered by our solicitors, even after fees was more than double our outstanding fee, which had included a “success fee” payable on grant of consent. If we waited until after the amended application was granted approval and the client had sold the land, we would have been in a worse tactical position to recover money due. Clearly the land could not be sold while the consent copyright drawings etc were in question.

  2. Following an application on a property the owners sold the building on. I recently discovered that the contractors working for the new owner had subsequently submitted an application for an amendment using my drawings.

    They didn’t even have the forethought to adjust the title block… instead just crudely scribbling on the amendment in a marker pen!

    I only came across it because I was searching the local authority site for other info. Needless to say, this constitutes a breach of copyright let alone a commercial activity. They obtained (illegally) used (and amended) my drawings without my permission and without agreeing a license to do so. In so doing, I lost out on the fees associated with work for amended designs and application submission. A stern letter was sent to the infringing party to inform them of their breach of copyright and their criminal actions.

    I think a lot of people do not understand copyright and ownership of drawings and designs. Many more think that just because the drawings have been published online that they have rights to use them as they wish. The truth is that your work online is afforded the same sort of protection as work published on paper.

  3. having semi retired from running a practice i now work from home, and with v. limited CAD abilities: i have found it perfect to arrange my hand drawn work on A1 sheets into sections so that i can scan it on an A3 machine (which did cost £150) and circulate it to both clients and consultants/ technicians: this could be an ideal and realistic format for smaller local authorities to use which would then enable them to print out as needed to scale, rather than us having the complaints about not being able to read drawings, or lack of dimensions that are there but not legible.this is a perfect format for smaller scale projects.

  4. GRPA permalink

    I’m sure it happens more times than we think or know, to one extent or another. And in the ‘old days’ copying a drawing manually with pinpricks was not unknown either!

    One (ex-)client told another professional that my drawings were hers and that he could use them as he wanted. He had the good sense to ring me up to confirm this and I had the opportunity to give him some ‘background’ on the job and come to an agreement.

    PDFs can have data embedded (like images with EXIF data) – but obviously this, like with images, can be easily removed. Likewise PDFs can be password protected but that isn’t much use for anybody! At least drawings are closely associated with individual properties, so tabs can be kept on any future applications via planning registries. Supporting docs not necessarily so of course.

    But what about light, discrete watermarking? Would LPAs accept this? Would also take a bit of expertise and self-control of course. And it would change the aesthetics.

  5. Pippa permalink

    As a local authority planner, we have an agent who regularly submits land registry title plans as location plans on applications and also doctors location plans from other applications to use on different addresses. The OS have been advised of his copyright infringement a couple of times and they sent him a warning letter……..he still does it!

    • Just a thought but if you are aware that an application is being made using illegally obtained drawings or maps can you not refuse to validate?

      • Steve E permalink

        Refuse to validate!? Under what authority?
        See my comment below.

      • I was asking out of interest really.
        It just seems to me that if I knew someone was acting fraudulently in any other capacity I would assume a responsibility to act on it.
        I’m not suggesting LPAs should be made responsible for verifying the authenticity of everything they process, but simply that if they become aware of an obvious misrepresentation they might consider acting on it and the ultimate sanction for them might be non-validation.
        Just a thought nothing more!

    • GRPA permalink

      It used to be (and still is AFAIK?) legal to take four paper photocopies of a portion of OS mapping in a library to enable the submission of location plans for planning apps, for free.

      Presumably it is only modern tightened (restrictive?) licensing of electronic maps that have muddied the water on legality? Is it illegal to get your ‘free’ photocopy, scan it and then submit that?

      As has been mentioned many times before, the requirement to provide 1:1250 maps for every application is really an anachronism in the days of GIS mapping at every council – but I know that’s a wholly different argument!

    • Tony permalink

      I called the OS people to inform of an agent doing the same thing and they said because of the costs involved with legal fee’s it is not worth going after the agents that do this. With the LPA it’s difficult for them because they have to take everyone on face value and if someone ticks that box to say they have rights to use the material submitted what can they actually do?

    • Paul Nicholson permalink

      We as taxpayers have already paid the Ordnance Survey an enormous amount of money to collect and process the survey information and we pay them for publishing it, we have also paid Local Authorities an enormous amount of money to buy, set up, posses and use paper mapping and GIS systems and enormously expensive GIS data – supposedly bought on our behalf as their citizens and employers – which beggars two clear questions ;
      1. Why on earth are the OS charging anyone for provision of mapping to accompany planning applications, and
      2. Local authorities already have detailed access to detailed postcode referenced site specific map data which has already been paid for (by the public) so why on earth do they need a location plan to be provided anyway? If the public need a location plan, they already have one. They have paid for it already two or three times so any taxpaying applicant shouldn’t have to pay again.

  6. Is it not possible to make pdf files on LPA websites read only, so that they can be viewed but not downloaded?

    • GRPA permalink

      The quick answer to that is no – the very fact you can see a PDF on your computer means that it has already been downloaded as a temporary file, so easy to reassign its directory for later viewing or use.

      The way that, for example, Google do it (for eBooks etc) is to render the actual PDF as an image (usually PNG) before it is delivered to the users computer. Any LPA want to (or have the resources to) try that?

  7. Why not incorporate a “watermark” stating copyright at say 45 degrees across drawing. I’m sure that this is fairly easy to insert so drawing can be easily read but not easily altered.

  8. I don’t understand why plans which are scanned to the portal can’t be watermarked either. This is an inexpensive and quick/easy process which, as Harry pointed out cannot be easily altered.

  9. Also to comment on David’s post, as a practice we need to be able to print off documentation which is available on the Portal. The cost implications of attending at the offices and paying the shocking charges some LPA’s charge would be astronomical

  10. Tony permalink

    I was made aware of another ‘agent’ who had taken my original survey plans, proposals and reports after I had gained a permission for someone else from the LPA website, including the OS Maps and then resubmitted them for someone else who had purchased the barn instead of my original client.

    When I approached the other client his response was ‘so what you have been paid, do you want paying twice or something?’ I pursued it for a while with letters etc. but it was starting to get painful so dropped my ‘claim’ and moved on.

    The LPA should do like others have said and introduce water marking.

  11. Simon permalink

    I think the problem arises when work is paid for (by the client) and so, although there are usually always the little ‘copyright of the architect’ notice somewhere on the plan, the client assumes that they are their property, in much the same way as buying most other things.
    Although it is frustrating to see work copied without permission, I can understand why it is done. And before I am shot down, I have copied (with permission of course!) and been copied (with and without permission). I take the view that if I have been paid for that work, it is for the client to decide what to do with it, but I do expect to be credited with undertaking the original drawing if they are duplicated in some way.

    • GRPA permalink

      Well I think you are right Simon, you have to look at the bigger picture. Can the harm be quantified? Is the credit still on the drawing? Is pursuing the matter proportionate? Would, in other areas, copyright be transferred or a license be given?

      If your work is uber-special or unique then by all means add watermarks yourself (rather than ask the planning portal to do so). I’ve done so in the past for a minority of jobs but it is not worth the bother for small ‘bread and butter’ ones.

      How many of us have at least taken rough or figured measurements off another drawing rather than slogging back to a site to do a complete new survey? How many of us have scanned pages from reports/books etc for heritage statements? Fair use has never been defined (AFAIK) in the UK. Retyping these sections (with attribution) is the only way I can see to stay within the literal letter of the law. But I don’t see LPAs ringing up publishers to report copyright infringements there!

      My turn to get shot down!

  12. Mark McPhee permalink

    Noticing a new planning application for a site owned by a former client. I had a look at the application to see what the new owners had decided to apply for. The proposed design was original but the survey drawings were all taken from our original application for the property. We wrote to the ‘architectural services’ consultant who submitted the application and sent our originals drawings as proof and an invoice. After some time the consultant paid our invoice and apologised for using the survey info stating he was ‘unaware’ of its provenance.
    I would love to see LPAs refusing to register applications that infringe copyright, but I can see that it would be easy for them to miss or not be sure. I would like to see LPAs take a stronger stance with quality of drawings and submissions generally and copyright could easily be part of that.

  13. James C permalink

    local major plan has been prepared with out of date maps (that omit some buildings) with no copyright attribution; stunning really and basis alone for rejection (Wokingham DC take note) I would think

  14. GRPA permalink

    Hey Chris
    A is for Architects, C is for Copyright…. you’ve missed out B 😉

  15. Steve E permalink

    It seems to me that the copyright, and any action against a breach, remains with the originator of the plans (or statement), i.e. the architect. Breach of Copyright certainly doesn’t invalidate an application submitted to the LPA; lead to a refusal; or affect the sale of land with PP!

    The LPA/Planning Portal should not be made responsible for checking/enforcing any such breach, no more than if an application might have been made using a stolen computer.

    Of course, LPA application databases usually require acceptance of terms and conditions before use, but these are easily bypassed, and whoever reads Terms and Conditions properly?

    I suggest that architects include a statement (some do) on their plans defining how they may (or may not) be used, and the consequences of mis-use. This might make a pirate think twice, or at least make it easier to take successful action against them.

  16. I know that DIY’ers and some other chancers are copying portions of plans to amend or help with their own submissions.

    Years ago I would put a lot of detail on the plans, but knowing what goes on, I now just keep to the bare minimum, and certainly no technical building regs level of detail. I would hate to think that someone is copying my work.

    On the subject of scanning plans in, why do LA’s print off electronically submitted plans, and then scan them back in as pdfs to be put on line? It seems a bit of a waste of time, and defeating the whole point of electronic submmissions

    • GRPA permalink

      Paul – when you ‘print’ a PDF from, say Autocad, a lot of the detail (eg text, lines, objects, sometimes layers depending on how Acad is configured) is preserved and so can be retrieved.

      By converting the PDF to an image and then printing back to a PDF every bit of vector detail is lost – it is now just one large flat plane that has to be passed through an OCR program (ie those image to vector jobbies) in order to get any vector info out at all.

      The price of all this ‘flattening’ is document size as now every pixel has to be referenced and not mathematical entities. Which is why such new PDFs are ‘dumbed down’ and the quality is so bad in order to keep them manageable.

      So the LPAs that do this are actually doing you a great favour if you are worried about copyright infringement!

  17. I forgot to add ….. I’ve also heard of people getting hold of the technical building regs plans via FOI requests to building control, and then making use of the technical design details and specifications

  18. John Danahay (Planning Portal Account Manager) permalink

    A possible alternative to water marking might be to insert a deliberate very small ‘non material’ error into the drawing – and of course document it in your system. This provides you with the evidence you might need to pursue a case because the copier will not know where the error is, and it cannot therefore be removed even if the document is re-scanned with OCR software and manipulated electronically.

  19. with regard to hooky OS plans being used for Planning applications (location plans), what real harm does it do anyway?
    with all the other esculating costs of Planning applications accompanying documents (topo surveys, bat surveys, traffic surveys, ground contamination surveys, acoustic surveys, FRA’s etc etc – which we all know rarely get read by the Planners or their consultees) and astronomical levels of Planning application fees, why would an applicant or agent want to spend an extra £50 on a location plan when they might already have one. And the Planning department has full access to the Local Authority database of up to date OS plans anyway (I know because I have worked in a Local Authority). In my opinion the OS plan should be included as part of the Planning fee and produced by the Planners, rather than the responsibility of all expenses and fees being put onto the applicant or agent.
    At the end of the day it is paying for a duplication something the Local Authority owns, and more needless cost risk to the applicant when the Planners can refuse any application on a whim and render all of the application costs wasted.
    The planning process needs to be streamlined and made more efficient, being anal about copyrights and scales of OS Plans is the oldest (and most pointless) trick in the book for planning validation clerks to delay an application.

    • Simon permalink

      Couldn’t have said it better. If professionals have been paid once for their work (and presumably a fee which they set / invoiced for) why get upset or angry when that work, which has been paid for already, is used again?

  20. Keith Baker permalink

    What a can of worms this is. I too have experienced being pirated, by a firm of so called reputable surveyors RICS and all. Whom incidentally were appointed in my place on the recommendation of the head of planning . The surveyors arrogantly and without consultation or permission copied and included my plans into their application and by the way they did it discredited and maligned me., a shoddy out of scale and distorted copy which included my logo and copyright statement (obviously they could not read,, Despite it being a clear contravention of the Copyright Designs and Patent Act, no one in reality takes any interest. Neither the LA whom failed in their duty of care, refusing to remove the plan from publication (an offence in itself) by them, saying they are obliged to accept and publish whatever is submitted, nor Trading Standards whom are statutorily bound to enforce the CD&P Act.
    They were eventually told by trading standards to revise their copyright marking procedure but continue to publish to this day. Trading standard spoke informally to the offending Surveyors but wholly failed in their responsibility to enforce the CD&P Act not even determining formally if or not an offence had been committed.
    My advice issue a formal letter to the offending party with an invoice for past use and setting out the terms for future or continued use, If you do not get a response within 14 days Go to court,
    One irony of this situation is that we often get letters from LAs saying that they are working with OS to prevent copyright abuse. Obviously as usual Money Talks, I wont get into the issue of the Highwaymen that are know as OS other than to say that, you can buy an atlas for the price of one site location plan, and a Sat Nav for the price of two or three,

  21. Keith Baker permalink

    This seems to be a common problem/occurrence.

    In fact LAs whom “publish” stolen plans on their website are equally guilty of a criminal offence under the CD and P Act as the thief whom sent them to them for publication. All Artistic and Literary work falls under the protection of the Act. LAs have a duty of care to both Taxpayers and Copyright owners to take this matter seriously. We all know ignorance is no defence..

    Taking this seriously includes asking at least themselves if the applicant has permission or is the copyright owner plus clearly marking that Copyright exists and copies cannot be made.

    Trading Standards are obliged to “enforce” the relevant provisions within the Act in respect of this.

    Keith Baker


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