Standard form construction contracts between an owner and design profesional will address copyright protection, as well as other contractual protections, associated with a design professional’s “instruments of service.”   An owner negotiating an agreement with a design professional should consider alternative language that broadens the scope of the contractual license given to it with respect to the use of the design.  Regardless, a design professional’s copyright infringement claim is still a challenging claim to ultimately prevail on.   While a design professional may likely survive the motion to dismiss stage in a copyright infringement claim, whether it survives the summary judgment stage is another, more challenging, story.


To state a claim for copyright infringement a plaintiff [design professional] must assert [and prove the following two prongs]: ‘(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.’” Robert Swedroe Architect Planners, A.I.A., P.A. v. J. Milton & Associates, Inc., 2019 WL 1059836, *3 (S.D.Fla. 2019) quoting Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991).  


In the first prong, the design professional must establish it complied with statutory formalities to own a valid copyright. Id.


In the second prong, the design professional must establish that the defendant copied constituent elements that are originalId.


There is also a claim known as contributory copyright infringement.  


Contributory copyright infringement occurs where a party with knowledge of infringing activity materially contributes to the infringing conduct of another.” Robert Swedroe, 2019 WL at *4.   Actual knowledge is not required – it just needs to be shown the defendant had reason to know (i.e.,knew or should have known) of the copyright infringement.  Id. (citations omitted). 


For example, in Robert Swedroe, an architectural firm was hired by a developer to prepare plans and specifications in connection with a residential building project.  The contract was based off an AIA B141 agreement between an owner and architect. The architect was to initially prepare plans to obtain approval of the governing Planning Board and, upon approval, prepare the permit plans for the residential building.    Once the Planning Board approved the project, the developer sold the property to another developer. The new developer, however, hired another architectural firm–that was provided and had access to plans from the initial architect–with the intent on moving forward with the design and construction of the residential building.


The original architect submitted its technical drawings and architectural work to the United States Copyright Office and obtained a Certificate of Registration.   (Notably, this satisfied the first prong on the copyright infringement claim as the original architect satisfied statutory formalities).  The original architect sued the new developer and new architect for copyright infringement asserting the new architect copied original elements of its design for the residential building project.  The original architect also sued the new developer for contributory copyright infringement.  The new architect and new developer moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claims. Although the trial court denied the motion to dismiss, the original architect will still need to support the burden of its copyright infringement claims.  For more information on the difficulties proving a design professional’s copyright infringement claim, review this article.  


Please contact David Adelstein at or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.



imagesA design professional or architectural firm has an uphill battle proving a copyright infringement claim.   Why? Because it is hard…very hard…for a design firm to show that another’s design is substantially similar to their original copyrighted design to warrant a finding of copyright infringement.


This uphill burden has been reaffirmed by the Northern District of Florida in Home Design Services, Inc. v. Turner Heritage Homes, Inc., 2015 WL 1482301 (N.D.Fla. 2015).  In this case, a residential design was copyrighted. The design firm that owned the copyright for the residential design sued a homebuilder for copyright infringement alleging that the homebuilder built 165 custom homes based on the design firm’s copyrighted design.  The jury returned a jury verdict in favor of the design firm for copyright infringement; however, the trial court entered judgment for the homebuilder finding that the design firm failed to prove a copyright infringement claim.  That’s right—the jury returned a verdict finding copyright infringement and the trial court entered a judgment for the homebuilder notwithstanding the verdict.


A leading issue in this case was whether the design firm’s copyrighted design was an original design and whether there were differences between the copyrighted design and the homebuilder’s allegedly infringing design.  The reason being is that in order to prove a copyright infringement claim of an architectural design:


For copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of protectable elements. In order to establish ownership of a valid copyright, the plaintiff must prove, among other things, that the work is original.  Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity. To establish copying, the plaintiff must show as a factual matter that the defendant copied the protected work, and, as a mixed question of law and fact, that the protected expression itself was copied. In the absence of direct proof of copying, a plaintiff may prove copying by demonstrating that the defendants had access to the copyrighted work and that the works are substantially similar. To show access, the plaintiff need not prove actual viewing and knowledge but simply a reasonable opportunity to view the work.  The test for substantial similarity for architectural works is whether a reasonable jury could find the competing designs substantially similar at the level of protected expression. [S]pacial depictions of rooms, doors, windows, walls, etc. are not protected. [O]nly the original, and thus protected arrangement and coordination of spaces, elements and other staple building components should be compared. Moreover, given the subtle distinction between protected and unprotected expression, the Eleventh Circuit has recognized that judges, rather than juries, are usually better equipped to resolve questions of infringement. The Eleventh Circuit has further instructed that copyright protection in a compilation is thin, and that modest dissimilarities are more significant than they may be in other types of art works.

Home Design Services, supra, at *6.


Focusing on whether the design firm’s copyrighted design was substantially similar to the homebuilder’s home design, the trial court found dissimilarities between the designs including, but not limited to, the porches were different, fireplaces were in different locations, elevations were different, hallways had different dimensions and openings, toilets were positioned differently, the nooks had different windows, master bathrooms contained differences, etc. (you get the point…there were differences).  Although the design differences were slight when comparing architectural designs, the fact remained that there were dissimilarities to preclude a copyright infringement claim.  No matter how modest the dissimilarities truly were, that fact that there were dissimilarities precluded a finding for copyright infringement.


Please contact David Adelstein at or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.