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United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Analyzes Architectural Copyright Infringement Between Two Homebuilders

In Sedgewick Homes, LLC v. Stillwater Homes, Inc., 2017 WL 3221488 (W.D. NC. 2017), the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina ruled there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Stillwater Homes, Inc. (“Stillwater”) infringed upon the copyrighted architectural plans of its competitor, Sedgewick Homes, LLC (“Sedgewick”). Sedgewick and Stillwater are home builders in North Carolina, who both interacted with two customers, the Bivins and the Shoemakers.

The Bivins met with Sedgewick in October 2013 and expressed interest in the “Spring Valley” model home. The Bivins then met with Stillwater and showed it the “Spring Valley” design drawings. After viewing a plan provided by Stillwater that the Bivins deemed “very similar” to Sedgewick’s plan, the Bivins contracted with Stillwater for the construction of the new home.

The Shoemakers also met with Sedgewick and expressed interest in a Sedgewick model home. The Shoemakers then went to Stillwater to ask whether it offered a home similar to the Sedgewick model. Stillwater explained it had a similar design and the Shoemaker’s contracted for its construction.

After Sedgewick learned of the similarities between the homes, it filed suit against Stillwater and alleged federal copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. §501, federal unfair competition under 15 U.S.C. §1125 (a)(1)(A), a North Carolina statutory claim under the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and a common law unfair competition claim. Both Sedgewick and Stillwater filed cross motions for summary judgment.

The Court applied the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (the “Act”) in analyzing the Motions, which extends copyright protection to “architectural works.” The Act states, “the 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.” The limiting factor of “individual standard features” includes features like “common windows, doors, and other staple building components.” Courts have also recognized protections are limited due to the limited ways an architect can design a home in light of consumer preferences, budgetary limitations and functional requirements. Despite these limitations, Courts recognize protections for the “shape, arrangement and location of buildings, the design of open space, the location of parking and sidewalks, and the combination of individual design elements”.

The Court reasoned the protections provided to home designs was similar to those afforded to musical “compilations.” The Court noted the protections afforded musical compilations are narrow, due to the smaller degree of originality necessary to put together a compilation. Compilations are generally afforded at least some modicum of protection, as long as the compilation was not a direct result of copying from another. Using this reasoning, the Court found that barring a direct copying of the original plans, there was a genuine of issue of material fact as to whether plans violated copyright law and refused to grant summary judgment to either side.

While the Court may have stated what clearly constitutes a copyright infringement, i.e. direct copying, it does not clearly define what is or is not protected beyond this. Architects should be careful to include as much of their own creativity in designs to avoid being accused of violating a copyright, but ultimately this issue remains fact intensive.