Eleventh Circuit: Similarity of architectural plans depends largely on arrangement of featuresJanuary 2, 2009

In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court's grant of summary judgment of non-infringement in an architectural copyright case. The appellant had argued that the district court had effectively heightened the standard for infringement by performing an element-by-element comparison focusing on the differences between two floor plans. The Eleventh Circuit held the comparison was appropriate given the thin nature of architectural copyright and that, given the differences noted by the district court, summary judgment was appropriate in this case.

More detail on Intervest Constr., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc. after the jump.

The case involved two homebuilders in central Florida. Intervest Construction filed suit claiming a competitor infringed its copyright on its "Westminster" home plan, created in 1992. The competitor, Canterbury Estate Homes, had a floor plan called "Kensington," created in 2002. Both plans were four-bedroom homes with one master bedroom, one master bathroom, a two-car garage, a living room, dining room, family room, foyer, kitchen, a second bathroom, rook, porch/patio, as well as other common elements such as closets, hallways, fixtures, utility rooms, and the like. Both were also approximately the same square footage.

The district court granted summary judgment of non-infringement following a comprehensive comparison of the arrangement of features between the two plans, noting differences such as the location of the entrance (front as compared to side), presence of garage attic access, and the location of water heater and air conditioning units, as well as differences in the layout of various rooms. After this analysis, the district court held no reasonable observer could find the two designs substantially similar. Intervest appealed, claiming that the comparison resulted in a heightened substantial similarity standard by focusing upon the dissimilarities between the two floor-plans at issue.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court began by considering the protection afforded architectural plans under United States copyright law. The court noted that, under the statutory definition of "architectural work" in 17 U.S.C. § 101, such a work "includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features." This approach "demonstrates Congress' appreciation that creativity in architecture frequently takes the form of a selection, coordination, or arrangement of unprotectable elements into an original, protectable whole." Based on the statutory language, the court concluded that "the compiler's choices as to selection, coordination, or arrangement are the only portions of a compilation, or here, architectural work, that are even entitled to copyright protection." The court also emphasized that the protection in such a compilation is "thin" and results in a narrowed substantial similarity inquiry.

Under the narrow inquiry warranted by the thin protection, the court stated that "only the original, and thus protected arrangement and coordination of spaces, elements, and other staple building components should be compared." Given this narrow inquiry, the court stated that the comparison "is often more reliably and accurately resolved in a summary judgment proceeding," because "a judge is better able to separate original expression from the non-original elements of a work where the copying of the latter is not protectable and the copying of the former is protectable."

Bringing the law to the case at bar, the court noted "the district court carefully compared the protectable aspects of the two floor-plans at issue, thus focusing only on the narrow arrangement and coordination of otherwise standard architectural features." Based on this comparison, the district court's holding was "essentially the same" as that affirmed in a previous Eleventh Circuit case: "At the level of protected expression, the differences between the designs are so significant that no reasonable, properly instructed jury could find the works substantially similar." Based on this reasoning, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment.

To read the full opinion in Intervest Constr., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc., click here.

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