Copyright Infringement Claim Against Builder Dismissed

Although it is true that architects are entitled to copyright protection, a complaint alleging infringement of a copyright must contain sufficient factual allegations for the court to infer that the defendant is liable, or the case will be dismissed. This is what happened recently in Home Design Services, Inc. v. Schoch Building Corporation, in which the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the plaintiff’s threadbare complaint for failure to allege facts sufficient to support a copyright infringement claim.

Home Design Services (“HDS”) owned several architectural copyrights and filed suit against Schoch Building Corporation (“SBC”), a custom home builder, under the Federal Copyright Act alleging that SBC infringed its copyrights. To establish copyright infringement, a plaintiff must plead (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) that defendant copied the protected work. HDS submitted its copyright registration certificates which created the presumption of copyright validity and ownership. However, it failed to state facts alleging that SBC copied the protected work.

A plaintiff may establish copying by showing (1) that defendant had access to the copyrighted work and (2) that substantial similarity exists between the protected work and the allegedly infringing work. A plaintiff can show access by direct evidence arch drawing.jpgthat the defendant had the opportunity to view the protected works or by showing that the works are so strikingly similar that there is no reasonable probability that they were independently created.

HDS did not allege that SBC had actual access to its copyrighted plans. HDS also failed to allege that the works were strikingly similar and in fact failed to provide any information about the allegedly infringing homes. The court found that HDS did not address access at all and that the complaint could not stand since it failed to allege an essential element of an infringement claim.

Reading the complaint in the light most favorable to HDS, the court went on to examine whether HDS adequately alleged “substantial similarity.” Since HDS provided no information about the allegedly infringing work, the court had no knowledge of what homes SBC built, where they were located or what they looked like and therefore could not compare the works and assess “substantial similarity.” HDS’s threadbare and factually devoid assertions that the homes SBC built were copied largely or were exact duplicates of HDS’s copyrighted designs were insufficient to satisfy pleading requirements. HDS contended that SBC could “figure out why they are being sued.” The court noted that a defendant has no such burden.

The court allowed HDS to file an amended complaint. In the amended complaint, HDS alleges that it displays its architectural designs on the Internet and in publications including its own magazine, Home Design. These publications include color renderings of HDS’s architectural designs, floor plans and photographs of its homes. In an apparent attempt to show access, HDS claims that SBC received Home Design and that SBC bought catalogs and a CD-ROM from HDS which allowed SBC to view HDS’s architectural designs. HDS also includes the homes’ addresses to provide the court with some information about the allegedly infringing works.

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