Although this case did not result in a finding that the claimed copyright, an architectural design for a building, was not protectable as a whole, it is particularly enlightening because it drives home several important concepts for any copyright litigator, including:

1. Architectural works are entitled to “specific copyright protection,” which does have limitations, as set forth in the Copyright Circular for Copyright Claims in Architectural Works and discussed by this Federal District Court in Miami:

Architectural works, and other compilations, have “specific copyright protection” in that the copyright protects the exact work itself; only subsequent works which copy the work’s specific expressions and designs will infringe upon that protection. The precise expression in the plan which was submitted to the United States Copyright Office is the work which is protected. However, certain standard elements which do not comprise the expression are not protectable. For example, the Eleventh Circuit has held that there are a finite number of ways buildings such as condominiums, homes, and offices can be arranged and such arrangements are not protectable. See Intervest, 554 F.3d 914; Howard v. Sterchi, 974 F.2d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir.1992). This must be the case because, to borrow a phrase used by the Ninth Circuit in a photography case, “the range of protectable expression” is limited by the fact that the work is architectural. Ets–Hokin v. Skyy Spirits, Inc., 323 F.3d 763, 766 (9th Cir.2003).

A plaintiff cannot use copyright to control the right to unoriginal arrangements, and so the protection afforded architectural works must be specific. An architectural copyright is not “minimal” or “thin” because the copyright does protect what it was issued to protect, i.e. the plan submitted to the Copyright Office. A copyright of an architectural work is a full-fledged copyright which protects the specific expression embodied in the plan which was issued a copyright by the Copyright Office

2. The question of substantial similarity is ripe for decision at the Motion to Dismiss stage, and does not have to wait until Summary Judgment.

[T]he “substantial-similarity” test is more often correctly administered by a judge rather than a jury—even one provided proper instruction. The reason for this is plain—the ability to separate protectable expression from non-protectable expression is, in reality, a question of law or, at the very least, a mixed question of law and fact.

3. Although the entire expression of an architectural design may be protected as a copyright, “the number of condominium units per floor, the height of the building, and the height of the ceilings are not features over which Plaintiff, or anyone, could claim a valid copyright.”

4. Detail, detail, detail.  What I mean by this is best evidenced by the analysis in this opinion.  Simply put, even if the concept is the same, the expression is what counts, and how that expression is achieved is considered.

I love this decision because it is detailed and well-reasoned.  It does, however, sound a bit unfair to the Plaintiff if indeed this was not a case of independent creation, but the facts are the facts.  Architects, designers, and others would be well-served to understand the scope of their copyright rights, and this opinion provides a roadmap.
Sieger Suarez Architectural P’ship, Inc. v. Arquitectonica Int’l Corp., 13-21928-CIV, 2014 WL 585883 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 14, 2014).


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