Seventh Circuit holds, unless architectural plans are virtually identical, no copyright infringement. DESIGN BASICS v. SIGNATURE

Seventh Circuit holds, unless architectural plans are virtually identical, no copyright infringement. DESIGN BASICS v. SIGNATURE

When most people think of copyright they think of art like sculpture, music or movies.  Copyright law in the United States does grant copyright protection to many other creative works of expression.   The Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and protects architectural works created on or after December 1, 1990.  An architectural work is the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.  The overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in an architectural design may be granted copyright protection.

The Copyright Office may register a claim to copyright in an architectural work if the work is a humanly habitable structure that is intended to be both permanent and stationary. Examples of works that satisfy this requirement include houses, office buildings, churches, and museums. Designs for things such as bridges, highway cloverleaves, dams, walkways, tents, recreational vehicles, or boats cannot be registered as architectural works.

Individual standard features of the architectural work, such as windows, doors, or other staple building components are not eligible for copyright protection.  Similarly, purely functional features of an architectural work, such as innovations in architectural engineering, construction techniques, or the interior arrangement of furniture, lighting or paint, are not eligible for copyright protection.

Contractors or builders that receive architectural plans for a building must be mindful of the copyright which may be attached to those plans.  The lack of a copyright notice does not mean that the plans are free to use.  Ignorance of copyright protections afforded architectural plans is not a defense to copyright infringement.

DESIGN BASICS, LLC, v. SIGNATURE CONSTRUCTION, INC., 19-2716 (7th Cir 2021) is a case where the courts dismissed an architectural copyright infringement case because the plans consisted mainly of unprotectable elements.

Plaintiff in this case is in the business of buying copyrighted architectural plans, finding companies that have built similar plans and attempting to get settlements.  Plaintiff has over 2,800 different copyrighted architectural plans.  Plaintiffs plans not detailed technical drawings, rather they are basic schematic designs, largely conceptual in nature, and depict layouts for one- and two-story single-family homes that include the typical rooms: a kitchen, a dining area, a great room, a few bedrooms, bathrooms, a laundry area, a garage, stairs, assorted closets, etc. Plaintiff has filed more than 100 lawsuits in the past decade.  Plaintiff sued Defendant, accusing them of copying ten of Defendant’s registered floor plans for suburban, single-family homes. The district court entered summary judgment for the defendants based the reasoning Plaintiff’s works had thin copyright protection.  Plaintiff then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit noted that a principle tenant of copyright law is: no matter how similar a plaintiff’s and defendant’s works are, if the defendant created his independently, without knowledge of or exposure to the
plaintiff’s work, the defendant is not liable for infringement.  There may be cases where the similarities between two works are so strong that the only explanation is copying, however that is a rare occurrence.  Most home designs share certain characteristics because it makes sense, Plaintiff created 2,800 different home designs, it is logical that Plaintiff can find a design in its portfolio that shares some similarities with just about any other home design.  For these reasons the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision in favor of the Defendant.

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