Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Seventh Circuit: Addition to Architectural Plans Not Original, But Submission of Reconstructed Computer Plans Sufficient for Copyright Filing

In Nova Design Build Inc. v. Grace Hotels, LLC, 2011 WL 3084929 (7th Cir. July 26, 2011), the Seventh Circuit considered a case where an architectural design firm registered a copyright in improvements made to a Holiday Inn Express project. The builder got in a dispute with the architectural designer. The builder proceeded to use the plans, and claimed that the contract permitted the use. On summary judgment, the district court ruled for the defendant builder and against the plaintiff designer.

First, the court applied the T.B. Harms v Eliscu test to determine subject matter jurisdiction. Since the complaint alleged copyright infringement, the court had subject matter jurisdiction. The builder's allegation that the use was permitted by contact (licensed) was a defense - and defenses do not affect jurisdiction under 28 USC 1331 or 1338.

Second, the court overruled the district court's finding that Nova's reconstruction of its computerized designs to support its copyright filing relied on Nova's memory and thus was invalid. Nova's computers had been stolen, so the precise files were unavailable. In overruling, the Seventh Circuit found that Nova's reconstruction was based on hard copies and a meticulous recreation of the plan and that on summary judgment the district court's adverse ruling was not appropriate.

On this point, Nova is correct. Indeed, before the digital world made exact copies common, many copies may have had tiny discrepancies in them. There is no hard evidence in the record supporting the district court's speculation that Nova had to resort to the memories of its employees to re-create its designs. And even if there were, Nova has pointed to evidence to the contrary. With the hard copies and the restored CAD files, Nova could meticulously and mechanically piece together a copy of its original designs.

Practice Tip: This is a quote that copyright practitioners will want to keep in their back pockets.

Third, the Seventh Circuit found that Nova's additions to the Holiday Inn Express plans were not original and thus Nova could not satisfy a key element of copyright infringement.

We think that Nova fails at the initial step: it has not identified anything in these particular designs that was original and thus protectable. Nova's designs were, for the most part, based on the Holiday Inn Express prototype. Nova does not assert that it has the right, either through contract or otherwise, to enforce Holiday Inn Express's copyright in its own plans. Instead, Nova protests that it added features to the prototype, such as an extra floor, a larger meeting area, different closet and door placements in the rooms, and different pool, exercise, and laundry areas, but that is not enough. Though Nova's designs do possess added features (and these additions are the only elements that may be protectable), they are devoid of originality. Merely adding an extra floor, identical to the floor layout of the prototype, is not original. The other features Nova mentions were specifically requested by Grace, mostly through written requests accompanied by graphic designs. In light of that, there was no creative element to these features in Nova's designs. See Tiseo Architects, Inc., 495 F.3d at 347 (holding that architectural sketches that incorporated owner's suggestions and drawings, and were limited by zoning requirements, did not possess requisite originality for copyright protection). The aspects of Nova's designs that went beyond the Holiday Inn Express prototype were insufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection, and with that Nova's claim for copyright infringement must fail.

The Seventh Circuit thus affirmed the District Court's grant of summary judgment against the plaintiff designer.

A short, but important case illustrating how the Seventh Circuit is looking at copyright claims, copyright filings, and demonstrations of originality on a summary judgment motion.

Nova Design Build Inc v Grace Hotels
 Purchase Copyright Litigation Handbook 2010 by Raymond J. Dowd from West here  

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