In the age of digital design plans, should architecture be protected as intellectual property? And if so, does the law go far enough to protect architectural copyright? The courts took another stab at these questions with a significant decision last week.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a $3.2 million award to Austin, Texas–based residential design firm, Kipp Flores Architects, in its suit against Hallmark Design Homes. The ruling is “one of the largest awards on record in an architectural copyright dispute,” according to Louis Bonham, an attorney for the plaintiff, in a press release.

In September 2012, a federal jury found that Houston-based Hallmark Design Homes committed copyright infringement by constructing hundreds of houses from architectural designs copyrighted by Kipp Flores. Hallmark Design Homes, founded in 2004 to create luxury houses in exclusive Houston communities, appealed the case, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict.  However, the Court of Appeals found no error in the judgment, claiming that the case was “well tried” by U.S. Magistrate Judge Francis Stacy.

"This case shows that, yes, you can get rung up for a substantial portion of your profits - it should be a great deterrent to infringe on copyright," Bonham says.

This is the second major federal case Kipp Flores Architects has won. In 2001, a federal jury in Norfolk, Va., issued a $5.25 million verdict in the firm's favor against two Virginia construction companies. Like the 2012 decision, the 2001 verdict was also one of the largest architectural copyright infringement judgments in history.

Osha Liang, the law firm that represented Kipp Flores Architects in the appeal, was involved in another similar case this year, Hewlett Custom Home Design, Inc. v. Frontier Custom Builders, Inc. and Ronald W. Bopp. A federal district court in Houston found Frontier Custom Builders guilty of copyright infringement for constructing and marketing 19 houses of Hewlett Custom Design Homes’ copyrighted designs. The court awarded Hewlett Custom Home Design $1.3 million, based on profits Frontier earned from the sale of the 19 houses. The court also ordered Frontier Custom Builders to destroy the infringing materials in the firm’s possession.

“There is a greater awareness now among architects about copyright infringement,” says New York attorney Caryn Leland. According to Leland, the three main concerns involved in architectural copyright infringement are: contractual issues between architects, easy access to electronic plans and drawings, and the close imitation of designs.

"The problem is now worse than ever,” Bonham says. “[I]t has become so easy for someone to infringe and most architectural copyright goes undetected."