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Firm Changes Title Block, Uses Another Company’s Drawings

ASCE recently conducted leadership conferences in each of its four zones. Leaders at the national, section, and branch level, together with younger member and student leaders, came together to exchange ideas, network, gain a better understanding of Society activities, and consider ways of leading their groups more effectively. This year's conferences included two sessions on ethics, both using materials provided by the National Institute for Engineering Ethics ( niee ). This month's column reviews and analyzes one of three case studies presented at the conferences. In preparing the case summary, the niee drew on an opinion from the National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review.   

Situation

Bert Bowser, an engineer, recently changed employers, going to work for a much larger engineering firm (Far Horizons Engineering). The parting between Bowser and his previous employer (County Line Design) was amicable because that employer understood the unique opportunity being offered to Bowser.

After working in the new job for about a month, Bowser reviews a set of "in-house" prepared drawings. As he reviews the detail sheets he notices something very familiar. He realizes that these details appeared to be an exact copy of a set that he and two other engineers labored over in his previous job at County Line.

Bowser is aware that the technology used for structural connections reflects the industry standard, but the manner of presentation is distinctive and clearly the work of his former employer. He determines that the Far Horizons details are, in fact, identical to the ones he had worked with at County Line. The only difference is the name of the project added in the title blocks of each sheet, along with the Far Horizons name and logo. Bowser remembers that County Line had once been a subcontractor for his present employer. However, he is certain that County Line had not given permission for "carte blanche" use of pieces of those previous drawings for other, unrelated projects.

Question

What are Bowser's obligations under asce's Code of Ethics once he realizes that the drawings are identical to those prepared by his former employer?

Decision

The guidelines to practice in category (e) of canon 5 read as follows: "Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments."

Participants at the zone leadership conferences discussed the importance of reviewing the original contract terms between Far Horizons and County Line in order to determine ownership rights of the detail sheets. They also discussed state licensure laws that prohibit engineers from knowingly using the plans or work of another engineer without the original engineer's knowledge and consent. As a way of promoting discussion, a number of options were presented for consideration by the attendees:

  1. The situation gives no cause for concern because the information shown on the detail sheets is all standard practice.
  2. Bowser should point out to his current employer that if it uses the detail sheets as part of its own "boiler plate" it will assume legal liability for any errors made by County Line.
  3. Bowser should discuss this matter with his current boss and should express his concerns over ownership and the illegality of using the detail sheets. He should ask for an explanation of the firm's view of his concerns.
  4. Bowser should recommend that Far Horizons go back to County Line and negotiate a written agreement that permits Far Horizons to use the detail sheets as part of its standard design contract package.
  5. Bowser should request that a principal of the firm be brought in to discuss the matter. Perhaps an agreement can be worked out with County Line for use of the detail sheets. However, it will be necessary to admit that the firm has unknowingly been using the County Line details.
  6. Bowser should send a copy of the detail sheets to the state board and suggest that it look into the matter.

Overwhelmingly, the participants at the conferences favored option 3, that is, that Bowser should discuss the matter with his current boss. Second to that was option 5, bringing in a principal to negotiate an agreement with County Line.

The fruitful interchange of ideas at the leadership conference sessions devoted to the ethical aspects of engineering practice demonstrates the value and importance of discussing ethical issues with your friends and colleagues. Further details of this case were published in the April issue of asce's Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, along with the online voting results from the niee for the options noted above. William Lawson, Ph.D., p.e., and Brian Brenner, Ph.D., p.e., prepared the case study and dramatization.

Members who have an ethics question or who would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call asce's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-asce (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint.  

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