Ross v. Olsen Fine Home Bldg.

Summarized by:

  • Court: Intellectual Property Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Copyright, Infringement, Access
  • Date Filed: 09-30-2013
  • Case #: 4:10cv129
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Newport News Division
  • LexisNexis Citation: 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141066
  • Westlaw Citation: 2013 WL 5461841
  • Full Text Opinion

Although designs for houses can be copyrighted, a copyright holder failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact when a couple who had toured a copyrighted single family house contracted with a different custom home designer to design a house that the copyright holder alleged to be substantially similar.

Opinion (Doumar): Plaintiff Charles W. Ross Builder ("Ross") is a custom home designer and builder. Defendants were Rick and Jennifer Rubin (“the Rubins”), who constructed a single-family home; Boathouse Creek Graphics, Inc. ("Boathouse"), a residential design corporation that designed the home; and Olsen Fine Home Building, LLC ("Olsen"), a builder that constructed the home based on plans drawn up by Boathouse. Ross sued defendants for copyright infringement concerning the single-family home. Ross alleged that, prior to beginning construction of their residence, the Rubins toured a copyrighted model of Ross's "Bainbridge" model home and received promotional material for it, including floor plans. It is alleged that the Rubins subsequently contracted with Boathouse and Olsen to design and construct a home substantially similar to the Ross's copyrighted Bainbridge design. Copyright protection extends to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. The Copyright Act was amended in 1990 to include the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (“AWCPA”), which extends protection to any architectural work, defined as "the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings." To establish a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove that it owned a valid copyright and that the defendant copied the original elements of that copyright. Copying can be proven through direct or circumstantial evidence. When direct evidence is lacking, a plaintiff may create a presumption of copying by indirect evidence establishing that: (1) it is "reasonably possible" the defendant had access to the copyrighted work; and (2) the defendant's work is "substantially similar" to the protected elements of the copyrighted work. Ross relied on circumstantial evidence to establish its claim that the defendants copied the Bainbridge design. However, the court found many of the similarities that Ross alleged pertained to "individual standard features" undeserving of protection under the Copyright Act because "[a] grant of exclusive rights in such features would impede, rather than promote, the progress of architectural innovation." Second, according to the court, Ross relied heavily on design elements that were beyond the Copyright Act’s scope because they were either indispensable or common to the style of architecture. Ultimately, the the court found that Ross’s allegations: (1) raised a genuine issue of material fact concerning the Rubins’ access to the Bainbridge design; but (2) failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact concerning access to the Bainbridge by Creek and Olsen. Further, the court found that Ross's allegations failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the Bainbridge and Rubin residence were "substantially similar" with respect to their protectable elements. The Court, therefore, GRANTED the Rubins' Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court further GRANTED the Renewed Motions for Summary Judgment filed by Boathouse and Olsen.

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