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Building A Case For Copyright Infringement: When Copying Someone’s Work Goes From Flattery To Liability In The Western District Of Texas

Kipp Flores Architects (KFA) brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against Pradera SFR (Pradera), American Housing Ventures (AHV), and KTGY in the US District Court of the Western District of Texas. KFA alleged the unlawful distribution of its copyrighted architectural design, contending that AHV either copied KFA’s works or induced Pradera and KTGY to do so.

In 2017, Pradera (the Developer) hired AHV as the development manager for the Pradera Project. AHV asked KFA for permission to use its previously licensed works. KFA and Pradera entered into a licensing agreement for the use of KFA’s amenities center design, but not KFA’s residential designs.

In November 2017, Pradera and AHV engaged KTGY to design residences for the Pradera Project and requested it to create “similar layouts” as KFA’s designs.  KFA alleged KTGY then developed the “Bluebonnet” style homes for construction, which are copies or derivatives of KFA’s designs.

AHV sought dismissal of KFA’s direct and contributory copyright infringement claims, stating that KFA had not provided evidence AHV copied KFA’s copyrighted works. AHV argued KFA had failed to identify the protectable elements of its works or provide a side-by-side comparison to show substantial similarity. The Court disagreed, finding KFA had provided enough evidence to support a copyright infringement claim because AHV had access to KFA’s architectural plans before constructing Bluebonnet homes, which KFA claims are copies of its original works, and KFA identified several instances where AHV had reproduced and distributed copies of its architectural works. The Court concluded KFA sufficiently alleged the necessary facts to support a copyright infringement claim against AHV.

AHV also argued KFA failed to show any direct or contributory infringement by any third party. Again, the Court disagreed. The Court found KFA sufficiently alleged AHV induced Pradera and KTGY to infringe on its designs by distributing the works, refining the design with KTGY, and causing Pradera and KTGY to construct the design without KFA’s permission. The Court relied upon two cases, Hewlett Custom Home Design v. Frontier Custom Builders, Inc. and Glenntex, Inc. v. Drennan Day Custom Homes, Inc., which held that constructing a protected architectural design without the copyright owner’s permission may constitute infringement. The Court denied AHV’s motion to dismiss KFA’s claim for contributory infringement.

Treating the use of architectural design as theft of intellectual property is not uncommon.  This case addresses whether using a design as inspiration for a style of construction is a use of the copyright material.  The Court found the Plaintiff at least met the pleading requirements for such a claim.  Nonetheless, companies should be mindful of using the design of others and ensure the use does not infringe on any copyright.