By: Richard E. Guttentag, Esq. and Alexander S. Beck, Esq., Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, LLC

Under copyright law, only expressions are protectable, not ideas. Architectural designs are viewed as compilations, and are afforded specific protection that only protects the exact work itself, to prevent subsequent works from copying the specific expressions and designs. The copyright is limited to those aspects of the work that display the stamp of the author’s originality. To establish an infringement of its copyright, the plaintiff must show that the subsequent architectural work expressions are substantially similar to its copyrighted plans. Establishing that architectural works are substantially similar for purposes of copyright infringement is a high standard, which revolves around the entirety of the specific work.

The case of Sieger Suarez Architectural Partnership, Inc. v. Arquitectionica International Corp., 2014 WL 585883 (S.D. Fla. 2014) involved an architectural firm (“Original Firm” and/or “plaintiff”) filing suit against a competing firm (“Replacement Firm”), the real estate developer, and developer’s principal (collectively “Defendants”) alleging copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, and vicarious copyright infringement stemming from the design of a condominium building in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida (the “Project”). The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint.

The Original Firm was hired in August 2000 to design plans for the Project.  The plans were completed about six years later, and the United States Copyright Office issued a copyright on the plans. Due to a change in ownership of the Project, the Replacement Firm was brought in to design the Project. After its replacement from the Project, the Original Firm had no further involvement on the Project, except that in May 2006, one of the Original Firm’s employees sent a copy of the Original Firm’s plans to the Replacement Firm. Around February 2012, the Original Firm learned construction was underway on Project, and that the allegedly infringing plans from the Replacement Firm were being used for the design of the building.

To state a claim for copyright infringement, the plaintiff is required to demonstrate that it owned a valid copyright and defendant copied essential elements of the work that are original. When there is no direct proof that the defendant was copying the copyrighted work, as was the case in Sieger Suarez, a plaintiff may still establish copyright infringement by demonstrating that defendant had access to plaintiff’s work and that plaintiff’s and defendant’s works are “substantially similar”.

Architectural works are protected under the Copyright Act as works of authorship, and are defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.” The overall form of the plan is protectable, but individual standard features such as windows and doors are excluded from the definition of “architectural work”. The courts have viewed architectural works as being analogous to “compilations” which are formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected or arranged in such a way that the resulting work constitutes an original authorship and protectable under copyright law. The copyright protection given to architectural works, and other such compilations, have “specific copyright protection” – meaning that the copyright protects the exact work itself, and only subsequent works which copy the work’s specific expressions and designs will infringe upon that protection. Only the precise expression in the plan that is submitted to the US Copyright Office is protected.

Under copyright law, only expressions of ideas are protectable, but ideas themselves are not afforded any protection. The copyright is limited to those aspects of the work that display the stamp of the author’s originality. When works contain similarities consisting of only non-protectable elements (i.e. ideas), no matter how numerous the similarities are, there can be no copyright infringement. However, the courts have acknowledged that there is no bright line rule separating non-copyrightable ideas conveyed by a work from the specific copyrightable expression of those ideas, and each allegation of copyright infringement must be analyzed on a case by case basis.

In Sieger Suarez, there was no proof of direct copying, so the Court’s analysis turned to the Replacement Firm’s access to the Original Firm’s plans and substantial similarity between the Original Firm and the Replacement Firm’s works. The court ruled that the architectural plans for the condominium building were not “substantially similar” as required for a claim of copyright infringement, since any relationship between the works was an intellectual one, not one of expression.  The Court reasoned that features that the Original Firm alleged to be evidence of copyright infringement were not protectable, such as the number of condominium units per floor, the height of the building, and the height of the ceilings. And, although both plans utilized a flower-shaped exterior, each plan’s expression of the shape, facade, and interior floor plan were very different and the buildings employed different structures at their tops and bases. The court acknowledged that the two plans were conceptually similar, and suggested that it appeared the Replacement Firm’s designs were inspired by the Original Firm’s designs. But, the Court explained that use of the original plans as a shortcut is not an actionable infringement because copyright law does not require wholly independent creation. Based on these differences, the Court ruled that the Original Architectural Firm failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because there was no showing of substantial similarity as a matter of law.

This case demonstrates that establishing that architectural works are substantially similar for purposes of copyright infringement is a high standard, which revolves around the entirety of the specific work embodied in the copyright, but relies on the expression found in specific places, such as: (1) manner by which design is achieved; (2) use of structures and details; (3) how an individual interacts with the space; and (4) location. To state a claim for copyright infringement of architectural plans, a plaintiff must show that the use of protectable expressions renders the subsequent design substantially similar to the protected design plans.

About the Author: Alexander S. Beck is an associate with Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, LLC. Mr. Beck in construction law including construction lien claims, payment and performance bond claims, bid protests, construction contract preparation, and construction and design defect claims He can be reached for consultation at [email protected].

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