An appeals court has cleared a Florida builder of copyright violations in the case of a four-bedroom, three-bath house that another builder claimed was built from copy-cat plans. The decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is "unpublished," meaning that the court is not intending it to be used as precedent for future cases. Still, the opinion in this dispute between two production builders sheds interesting light on the issues involved when a builder or designer wants to claim ownership of an architectural idea. The Business Observer has this report (see: "Builder vindicated in copyright case").

The case pits Sarasota-based Tivoli Homes and a co-defendant, Sarasota-based Start to Finish Drafting, against Medallion Home, based in Manatee County. Medallion said that Tivoli copied its plans, the Business Observer reported: "The firm filed the suit after a couple it worked with on building a potential home in The Hammocks, east of Interstate 75 at the end of Bee Ridge Road, decided to go with another builder. Medallion, court records show, contended that Tivoli and Start to Finish, through a reverse-engineering scheme, used Medallion’s copyrighted Santa Maria model to build a home for the same couple."

But the trial court, as well as the appeals court, identified substantial differences between the two designs, detailed in the appeals court opinion (see: "MEDALLION HOMES GULF COAST, INC., Plaintiff-Appellant, versus TIVOLI HOMES OF SARASOTA, INC., et al.") "In the instant case, as in Home Design Services and Intervest [earlier cases treated as precedent by the court], the Santa Maria and the Duke floor plans are at first glance visually similar," the court noted. "Both plans can be described as four-three split plans, that is, four-bedroom three-bathroom plans with a master bedroom on one end and three other rooms at the other end. In the Santa Maria, the master bedroom is on the right side, and in the Duke plan, the master bedroom is on the left side. Both plans are arranged around a large center open area containing a contiguous great room, dining room, kitchen, and nook. Both plans contain a two-car garage. However, despite the fact that the plans share in common the same set of rooms, arranged in the same overall layout, these shared elements are not copyrightable elements. Indeed, the same basic split layout was present in both our Home Design Services and Intervest cases."

"The district court, relying both on Defendant Kubisiak’s deposition and Medallion’s own expert, amply examined the numerous differences between the plans," the appeals court continued. "Indeed, Medallion’s expert identified more differences than similarities. These differences include differences in dimensions, wall placement, and the presence, arrangement, and function of particular features around the house such as doors, windows, and other fixtures. We need not repeat the district court’s excellent analysis. We conclude that the differences identified by the district court are significant; they are comparable to those described in Home Design Services and Intervest. For example, instead of having two separate garage spaces as in the Santa Maria, the Duke plan instead includes one two-car garage and one finished and air-conditioned hobby room with a niche area directly outside of the entrance door. Additionally, unlike the two-car garage in the Santa Maria, the two-car garage in the Duke residence also differs with respect to dimensions, the inclusion of attic access, and the number and placement of windows and doors. The numerous and significant differences discussed by the district court indicate that these plans differ where it matters: at the level of protectable elements."

Copyright protection for architectural plans, and for buildings as an expression of the plans, is relatively new in the United States. It dates back to 1989, when the U.S. joined the Berne Convention, an international agreement governing intellectual property. To prove a violation, the plaintiff must establish both "copying in fact" (establish, that is, that the defendant actually copied the work, or at least had sufficient access to the original to be able to copy it) and also that the two works are "substantially similar" (a determination that is somewhat subjective). This Wikipedia entry offers a closer look at the fine points of the relevant legislation and case law (see: "Copyright in architecture in the United States").