Conflict can occur when an architect departs a firm but still wants to get credit for the design.
About the copyright law: copyright exists when a work is put in a tangible form, such as when a design is put down on paper. You don’t have to register your work to have a copyright on it. (If you want to bring a lawsuit, that’s another story.)
As a general matter, when you create a design, you own the copyright on that design—unless you’re an employee and it’s your job to create that work. The copyright for designs created by an employee of an architectural firm belongs to the firm (rather than the employee) under the principle of “work made for hire.” However, if you’re a very senior employee, or not an employee at all (such as a partner), you may be able to negotiate as part of your agreement with the firm that you can own or at least continue to use particular designs, even after your departure from the firm. Of course, the firm would have to agree to such a provision.
The U.S. copyright law states that the owner of a copyrighted work has the exclusive right to copy the work or to create what are known as “derivative works” based upon the copyrighted work (for example, creating modifications of the work). Essentially, the owner has the right to control how its intellectual property is used.
Where architects and designers are concerned, the copyright law can prevent a former employee from using the firm’s designs on a website or copying them to include in a personal portfolio, since only the copyright owner has the exclusive right to copy or use the design. Even if a firm does decide to allow a former employee to use the designs (for marketing purposes, for example), the question of how to credit the designer’s involvement may (and often does) still remain.