The Protection of Architectural Works as Compilations of Individual Features

May 2010

Under U.S. copyright law, an "architectural work" is defined as "the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans or drawings." Copyright registrations may be obtained for the architectural plans as well as for the constructed building, and separate causes of action exist for infringement (i.e., unauthorized copying) of the plans and infringement of the design of the building.

In Intervest Constr., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc., 554 F.3d 914 (11th Cir. 2008), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether the trial judge erred in granting the alleged infringer's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that there were significant differences in the protectable aspects of the respective floor plans at issue. In analyzing this issue, the appellate court first noted that although individual features (i.e., bedroom, stairwell, etc.) of an architectural work are generally not copyrightable, it is the combination or compilation of those features that makes an architectural work protectable under copyright law.

According to the appellate court, it is the selection, coordination and arrangement of the features that constitute the architectural work that entitle it to copyright protection. The level of protection afforded to a copyrighted work, however, depends on its level of originality, and the court noted that copyright protection for compilations is relatively "thin." This means that a more stringent standard is applied in determining whether the allegedly infringing work is substantially similar to the allegedly infringed work.

The trial court's analysis turned on a number of factual differences between the allegedly infringed work and the allegedly infringing work-there were differences in square footage, front and side entrances, attic access, bonus room (one of the designs lacked one, and the other had one), placement of air conditioning unit and water heater, number of windows, location of closets and hallways, the shape of rooms, the location of nooks, etc. The court also noted substantial differences in the kitchen designs. In short, this case turned on its facts.

In the opinion of this author, the significance of the Intervest case is not that the appellate court upheld summary judgment for the defendant but that the appellate court decision supports the proposition that in cases involving alleged infringement of an architectural work, it is the compilation of features that is protectable. As such, it is incumbent upon the copyright holder to establish similarity not among individual features but between the overall designs as a whole. This is consistent with Section 101 of the Copyright Act, which provides that itis "the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design" that is protectable.


Amicable photo of Toni

Antoinette M. Tease, P.L.L.C.