Protecting your Copyright in non-standard Construction Contracts (Law Note)

copyright symbol exploadingLast week I discussed copyright issues under ConsensusDOCS and AIA form contracts.  This week, we’re taking a look at how to protect copyright in your design documents when you are not using a standard form contract.

If I’ve learned one thing about working with a lot of design professionals over the past decade, it is that many of them– too many– are just plain too nice.  That’s right, too nice.  They send polite letters of proposal to the client, and then begin work on a handshake deal.  Or, they willingly sign on to the Owner’s contract without pushing to negotiate more favorable, mutually beneficial contract terms.  Under the maxim that “no good deed goes unpunished,” sometimes such clients are giving away their copyright ownership without being appropriately compensated.

Unscrupulous, or at least naive, owners sometimes believe that because they paid for design documents, they own them and can use them for any purpose.  This, of course, is *usually* not true.  However, sometimes the owner agreement states that the designer’s work product is created as a “work for hire” or otherwise provide that the owner has an unlimited ability to use the work product regardless of the circumstances.  Such clauses should either be removed altogether or negotiated up front, with appropriately compensation being provided for such copyright ownership.

If you are working under a letter proposal, it should at least include language indicating that the design team maintains ownership rights in the design documents.  Further, you should make explicit that the owner has no right to continue to use design documents in the event the owner terminates your contract unless and until full payment for such documents is given to the design team.  Even better would be a requirement that the owner indemnify the design team from any unauthorized use of the design documents.  (Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?).

Most importantly, realize that without the built-in protections of the standard agreements, it will be much more difficult to enforce your copyright ownership in your plans & drawings.  For a few moments extra work on the front end tweaking your letter proposals or negotiating your owner contract, you can save countless hours of heartache on the back-end.

Do you have standard copyright ownership language in your non-form construction contract?  Ever had to fight copyright issues with the owner? Share in the comments below.  And, if you have not already done so, sign up for direct email delivery of blog posts right to your in-box.

Photo (c) Jens Rydén via Creative Commons license.

Copyright Protection under ConsensusDOCS and AIA–which is better? (Law note)

Large copyright sign made of jigsaw puzzle piecesWhich standard form contract provides “better” protection for copyright issues- ConsensusDOCS or AIA? The ever-so-hepful “it depends” is, as usual, the answer. 

Are you the owner looking to use the plans you paid for even after you terminate an architect, or are you the architect looking to protect your work product?  If you are the owner, you will probably prefer ConsensusDOCS.  If you are the architect, your best bet is still the AIA documents. 

Consider the following:

Under ConsensusDOCS 240,

  • the Owner receives ownership (except copyrights) of all documents, drawings, and data prepared by the architect or consultants for the Project, upon final payment for all sums due in the event of termination (Article 10.1). 
  • the Owner has the option of being granted copyright ownership, contingent on making all payments required, including a stated copyright fee. (Article 10.1.1). 
  • whether termination is for convience or for cause by either party, the Owner can use the documents to complete the project, provided he pays all sums due (Article 10.1.2). 
  • the Owner agrees to indemnify the architect for post-construction use of documents.  (Article 10.1.3).

Under AIA B101,

  • the architect and consultants are the owners of their respective instruments of service, retaining all rights, including copyrights (Article 7.2).
  • the Owner is granted a non-exclusive license in the instruments of service, soley for use in constructing, using, maintaining, altering and adding to the Project, provided the owner substantially performs, inclduing making prompt payments of all sums due (Article 7.3). 
  • if the Owner does not pay all sums due, if the architect terminates the contract for cause, or if the Owner does not pay an extra fee after a termination for convenience, the Owner’s non-exclusive license terminates. (Article 7.3; Article 11.9). 
  • the Owner must indemnify the architect against third party claims arising from the owner’s unauthorized use of documents. (Article 7.3.1).  
  • if the Owner properly terminates the architect for cause, there is no indemnity against third party claims and no release of the architect from the owner’s claims arising from the use of the docuemnts (Article 7.3.1). 

Do you have experience in managing copyright issues under either contract?  Which do you prefer?  Leave your thoughts in the comments section, below.

Next week, I’ll address copyright issues in non-standard construction contracts, including letter proposals.

 Photo (c) Horia Varlan via Creative Commons license.

Is your Contractor’s Surety Company financially strong? (Guest Post)

Today we have a guest post from JW Surety on how to find bonding companies, check their solvency, and see how each surety company compares to one another.  As the design professional of record, the architect is often faced with reviewing the bid applications and paperwork, including bonding information.  With the increasing number of failing companies, including insurance companies, over the past few years, checking the bonding company’s financials makes good sense.

Much is unknown about surety bonds and, more importantly, what bond types are required in order to start your shop. The following three steps can help customers [Ed. note: or architects conducting due diligence] determine the best surety company for their bonding needs:

hand signing surety bond application

1)     Are they licensed?

As required by law, surety organizations must be licensed in order to operate as per their state guidelines. These licensing requirements are strict and involve background investigations into each company’s history. The benefit for customers is knowing that those surety companies which are licensed to operate are not only qualified, but they are ethically secure to practice. Those beginning the surety search can look through the U.S. Department of Treasury’s list of licensed companies to get a better understanding of which companies to reach out to.

2)     How are they classified?

Customers should get a firm understanding of how each surety company ranks in comparison to each other. To help make this process more manageable, consumer protection organizations do their own investigation and analysis and publicize their findings for others. Although there are several of these agencies, one of the most respected is Dun & Bradstreet, who offer their findings for a nominal fee. Customers can search through thousands of surety companies, gauge how long they’ve been operating, and assess which agencies they believe are most reputable for their bond needs.

3)     Is a surety broker a more viable option?

Brokers are similar to surety bond companies in that they are able to produce and distribute bonds. Typically, these individuals have established relationships with several high-level surety bond organizations, and can help advise customers on what types of bonds to secure, and how much it will cost them up front and annually. Often times individuals prefer the one-on-one relationship brokers offer. Customers interested in finding a reputable surety bond broker should look through the directory of the National Association of Surety Bond Producers.

Thanks JW Surety, for your guest post.  Welcome to my new subscribers this week!  Please contact me with any of your thoughts or concerns regarding construction law, and I’ll address them in upcoming posts.

Photo (c) JW Surety

Don’t Go Changing (My Date of First Work): The NC Court of Appeals Upholds Contractor Lien Rights (Guest Post)

Today, a guest post by Bonnie Keith Green, a construction lawyer and litigator with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Bonnie represents general contractors, subcontractors, materialmen, suppliers, and sureties in construction disputes. 

Through her involvement with the National Association of Women in Construction and the ACE Mentor Program, Bonnie developed a particular interest in representing minority and women-owned construction companies.  She currently chairs a joint committee of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Construction Law Section and the United Minority Contractors of North Carolina.  

Bonnie and the firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, represented Superior Construction Corporation from the beginning of the case (discussed below) through the appeal.

Green, BonnieIn a recent victory for contractors, a unanimous three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that a contractor’s signing of a partial, interim lien waiver did not change the contractor’s date of first furnishing and that the contractor’s lien rights continued to relate back to the date of first furnishing, or first work on the project.

The decision is Wachovia Bank National Association, LLC and Preserve Holdings, LLC v. Superior Construction Corporation and Western Surety Company.

Superior was the general contractor and contracted with the original owner, Intracoastal Living, LLC, to construct a condominium development known as “The Preserve” in Oak Island, North Carolina. Superior began work on April 22, 2005.  Approximately one month later, Intracoastal, the owner, and Wachovia, the construction lender, executed a loan agreement and promissory note and recorded a deed of trust on the property.  During construction, Superior submitted regular pay applications, including its first two pay applications, dated May 11, 2005 and June 9, 2005.  Consistent with industry practice, these pay applications contained partial lien waivers.

Two years later, after failing to receive all payments due from the owner,Superiorfiled a claim of lien on the property, stating that it first furnished labor and materials to the project on April 22, 2005.

Wachovia eventually foreclosed on the project, also due to non-payment by Intracoastal.  In a separate lawsuit, Wachovia brought a declaratory judgment action, asking the court to rule that its deed of trust had priority overSuperior’s lien.  The case was transferred to theNorth Carolina Business Court.

Preserve Holdings, which was formed by a prior owner of Intracoastal, placed an upset bid during Wachovia’s foreclosure, and obtained title to the property, along with all of improvements made bySuperior.  Preserve Holdings was required to post a cash bond in the amount of approximately $950,000.00, because the status of Superior’s lien was uncertain.  After its purchase, Preserve Holdings replaced Wachovia as the plaintiff in the declaratory judgment litigation.  Superior’s bonding company, Western Surety, also claimed entitlement to the cash bond because of payments it made to subcontractors on Superior’s behalf.

The issue for the North Carolina Business Court in the declaratory judgment action was whether Superior’s lien related back to its date of first work and had priority over Wachovia’s subsequently-recorded deed of trust, thus entitling Superior to the cash bond; or alternatively, whether Superior had waived its lien rights by signing the partial, interim lien waivers along with its pay applications, placing its lien behind the deed of trust in priority, and thus entitling Preserve Holdings to the cash bond.

The North Carolina Business Court considered the language of the interim lien waivers and held that they unambiguously waived Superior’s right to lien the property for any work “up to and including” the date of signing the waiver.  The Business Court held that this language resulted in a change to Superior’s date of first work and placed Superior’s lien after Wachovia’s deed of trust.

The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Superior’s date of first work did not change because of the execution of partial, interim lien waivers.  Interestingly, the Court of Appeals looked at the exact same language as the Business Court, and also held that the lien waivers were unambiguous.  The Court of Appeals, however, held that the lien waivers unambiguously did not change the date of first furnishing.

The Court of Appeals focused on the language “on account of” contained in the lien waivers, holding that the “on account of” language indicated a causal connection between the contractor’s lien waiver and the specific payment being received by the contractor in exchange for its lien rights.  This causal connection meant that the lien waiver was only for that particular payment and did not waive Superior’s rights as to future work or retainage.

The Court of Appeals’ holding is more consistent with the construction industry’s long-standing practice of using partial, interim lien waivers—and the parties’ (at least the contractor’s)—intent in this instance.  The Court of Appeals’ decision may well be viewed as controlling precedent in any future cases involving similar lien waivers.  There is a need for caution, however.  Contractors, subcontractors, materialmen, and suppliers are cautioned to have lien waivers reviewed by their lawyers and to add language explicitly stating that the partial waiver of lien rights in exchange for payment does not alter or change the date of first furnishing and does not waive lien rights for future work or retainage.

The ruling comes at a time when the status of legislation to overhaul North Carolina’s lien laws is uncertain.  House Bill 489, which was introduced during the 2011 General Assembly, and would have required all parties to use standard, form lien waivers, has been referred to a Study Commission.  It may be considered for passage later this year, or possibly during the short session in 2012.  While the legislation is on hold at the moment, the Court of Appeals’ decision is favorable for contractors.  In these difficult economic times, any victory such as this in favor of the enforcement of contractors’ lien rights is a welcome development.

Bonnie and I welcome your thoughts and opinions on the case in the comments section, below.

Lien Law Unlikely To Change– Yet

detour signFor those of you following the proposed revisions to the NC lien law that is currently at the NC House Judiciary Subcommittee B, a quick update:  the proposed bill (HB 489) is unlikely to be voted on this legislative session due to its unpopularity with several constituency groups, including both the AIA-North Carolina and the NC Home Builders Association.

According to NC Bar Association Construction Law section chair, Nan Hannah, a vote is unlikely in this legislative session.  However, there is the potential for a study commission to continue the conversation and discuss alternative lien law changes that might satisfy all constituents.

Such a study commission will only occur is Subcommittee Chairman Paul Stam hears from those in the industry that such a study commission is desired.  In addition to the Construction Section of the Bar, the American Subcontractors Association of the Carolinas supports the idea, as do other industry groups.

If you want to add your voice of support for a study commission, contact Representative Stam  or Co-chairman Representative Grier Martin.

Do you believe that the proposed lien law revisions adequately protect designers? Is a study commission worthwhile?  Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.


Photo: (c) via Creative Commons License.