Ownership and Copyright of Drawing Files

A reader asked me a question: “As a software developer what is your view relating to ownership of a .dwg (or any other data file created by a software user for that matter). Do you personally believe if I create a .dwg file I have sole ownership and copyright of that file?”.

This topic about ownership and copyright of a drawing file (or for any file for that matter) has been discussed by many in the past and I have seen some arguments go tangentially into a totally different plane. I am not surprised because this is a topic that can be very confusing or can get easily confused. As far as my view goes, I will try and make it simple.


As far as I understand ownership, a person can claim ownership over something (or part of something) only if he has created it (or part of it).

Applying this to a drawing file, it is common sense that a drawing file comes into useful existence due to two parties: the software vendor and the end user. The software vendor has used his time, knowledge and resources to create the drawing file format, basically the algorithm that determines how geometric data is stored in the drawing file. The end user has used his time, knowledge and resources to create the objects in the drawing file and arrange them to form a design.

So, the software vendor can claim ownership of the technology used to create a drawing file (essentially, the algorithm), whereas the end user can claim ownership to the meaningful arrangements of objects in the drawing file (essentially, the design).

I do not think any software vendor has ever claimed ownership to files created by their software. It’s as ridiculous as suggesting that a guitar manufacturer claims ownership of a song sung by a singer using his guitar.


I am no legal expert, so I will make use of Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia: “Copyright law covers only the particular form or manner in which ideas or information have been manifested, the ‘form of material expression’. It is not designed or intended to cover the actual idea, concepts, facts, styles, or techniques which may be embodied in or represented by the copyright work”.

Continuing from my earlier discussion on Ownership, the algorithm and the design are both abstract things. For the software vendor to claim copyright over an algorithm, I guess he will have to print the program generating the drawing file on a piece of paper and put a copyright notice on it. And for the end user to claim copyright over a design, he will have to print the design on a piece of paper and put a copyright notice on it. As far as the drawing file goes, I do not think it makes sense for either party to literrally print the drawing file in text/hexadecimal mode and on a piece of paper and put a copyright notice on it. [Here “printing on paper” could also mean other forms of output such as a monitor, screen, etc.]

The point to be noted here is that when the software vendor prints the program on paper, the design is not visible, but the algorithm is. Similarly, when the end user prints the file from the software on paper the algorithm is not visible, but the design is. However, a text/hex printout shows neither the algorithm nor the design. In effect, you are actually copyrighting a bunch of garbage characters, not the algorithm or design. In my view, the actual drawing file (the bits and bytes) is useless as far as copyright is concerned.

Copyright is literally “the right to copy” an original creation. So effectively the software vendor has the right to copy his program and the end user has the right to copy his design. The drawing file, by itself, is abstract and hence cannot be copyrighted.