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Blog 9 Mar 2017

Naturalis forced to discontinue renovation due to architectural copyright

Written by Peter Simonis
During interlocutory proceedings, the judge ruled that the Naturalis Museum in Leiden should discontinue the renovation of its premises. This is due to the fact that the architect of the building made objections against the renovation on the basis of his copyright on the original design.

When a piece of art is created, copyright automatically exists. A copyright therefore does not need to be registered. Not everything is protected under the copyright but the conditions are not very strict. It is common that copyright is discussed with music-, film-, and book works, but copyright is also relevant to architects. Sketches, blueprints and the final design can be included in copyright protection.

The exploitation of a copyright can be transferred. Though, not transferrable is the so-called ‘personality right’ of the maker of the work. This means, among other things, that the maker has the right to object against any alterations of his work by others. In the case of an architect this means that under the right circumstances, he can object against alterations to the building he designed.

Architect versus Naturalis

At Naturalis, there was a need for expansion of the museum. A remodelling of the interior and an expansion by means of constructing a new building, were deemed necessary. The architect of the museum building wanted to prevent this from happening and took the matter to court. In his demand, he emphasized that he does not oppose the expansion, but that the alterations to the Naturalis building, prepared by Naturalis, infringed his personality rights.

Naturalis vs architect

Earlier this year, the judge visited the museum in order to determine whether it is eligible for copyright. The judgment confirmed this: it was determined that the interior of the museum was clearly characterized by individually recognizable- and interconnected spaces. This creates viewing holes and free spaces, in which the difference between light and dark plays an important role. The planned remodelling of these spaces would degrade the museum to a colossal warehouse, according to the architect.   


The judge agreed with the architect that the remodelling of the characteristic spaces touches the original design in its core. For that reason, the planned change is according to the judge, a substantial damage of the work – therefore an infringement of the copyright.

Can an architect prevent all alterations to buildings of his design? No: the demolition of a building cannot be prevented on the basis of copyright, as demolition is not seen as ‘damaging the work’. There are no exceptions to this rule as it would result in unacceptable consequences for society. However, also less drastic alterations can sometimes not be prevented by the architect. In some cases, it is a matter of weighing interests.  

This verdict originates from an interlocutory procedure, which mainly provides a temporary solution. The definitive decision is expected in a couple of months. Naturalis cannot proceed with its planned construction and – as expressed by Naturalis – now have to fear for bankruptcy.

Update 14-4

The meantime, Naturalis has achieved a settlement with the architect. After a payment of 1.5 million euros, that will go to a new foundation, Naturalis can continue the renovation.


Beeld: Neutelings Riedijk Architects