I recently read about a lawsuit involving two architects who were competing for the same condominium project. The plaintiff architect (the one who lost out on the project) sued the defendant architect (the one who won the project), claiming that the defendant architect’s design was so substantially similar to a condo project in another state designed by the plaintiff architect as to constitute infringement. The out-of-state condo had been registered as an architectural work with the U.S. copyright office. The defendant argued that it did not copy the design and that the two designs were not substantially similar.
The court explained that if there is no direct evidence of copying, a plaintiff may prove copying by circumstantial evidence in the form of proof that the alleged infringer had access to the work and that the supposed copy is “substantially similar” to the author’s original work. “Substantial similarity” means the two projects are “extrinsically” and “intrinsically” similar.
The plaintiff architect’s expert could not prove that the design had been copied, but did testify that “the two designs have an extrinsic similarity in that the ideas and expression of the ideas used in the projects have substantial similarities…including such things as building floor plan layout, exit circulation, building size and composition of the major elements that make up the exterior expression of the designs.” He also identified nine characteristics shared by both designs, such as the height of the buildings and the two elevator lobbies that were connected by a service corridor.
The court found that the mere presence of these nine features in both buildings did not create an issue for trial because the plaintiff did not and could not claim “any protectable interest in any individual component” of the design. The court found that no reasonable jury could find that the two projects were “extrinsically (i.e., objectively) similar” and that the plaintiff failed to identify a specific similarity between the defendant’s project and the protected elements of the plaintiff’s design. The appellate court affirmed the summary judgment of the lower court in favor of the defendant architect because the plaintiff architect failed to provide sufficient evidence of copying or substantial similarity.
To learn more about avoiding copyright infringement claims, read the Schinnerer claims study on intellectual property (restricted to policyholder access only).