8th Circuit revives copyright dispute over house floor plans

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/Illustration
  • Home designer sued realtors for infringement
  • District court said floor plans protected from copyright claims
  • 8th Circuit reverses, says copyright statute doesn't cover

(Reuters) - The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reinstated copyright claims brought by home designer Charles James against real estate companies that allegedly made floor plans based on one of his designs without permission.

A copyright law that protects pictures or "pictorial representations" of architectural works from infringement claims doesn't apply to floor plans, U.S. Circuit Judge Morris Arnold said.

James and his attorneys Andrew Grimm and Gregory Keenan of the Digital Justice Foundation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did realtors Columbia House of Brokers Realty Inc, Susan Horak, or Columbia's attorneys Patrick Kuehl of Rimon and Jeffrey Simon of Husch Blackwell.

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James' Designworks Homes Inc sued Columbia and Horak in 2018 for allegedly infringing his copyrights in a design for a Columbia, Missouri, home with a "triangular atrium design with stairs," by creating floor plans for homes built using the design.

U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes in Missouri ruled for the realtors in 2019, based on part of a statute that says a copyright in an architectural work doesn't include the right to prevent others from making "pictures, paintings, photographs or other pictorial representations" of it if it's visible from a public place.

Designworks argued on appeal that the floor plans weren't covered by the statute, and Arnold – joined by Circuit Judges Raymond Gruender and David Stras – agreed.

Arnold said "the broader context of the copyright statutes as a whole reveals that Congress knew how to describe floor plans with more specificity" if it intended for the statute to apply to them.

He noted part of the Copyright Act defines the "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works" that are eligible for copyright protection to specifically cover "technical drawings, including architectural plans," and that the Visual Artists Rights Act also defines works of visual art to include "technical drawings."

"The floor plans here certainly could be characterized more comfortably as 'technical drawings' or 'architectural plans' than as 'pictures,'" Arnold said. "Congress therefore had more appropriate terms at the ready but did not use them."

Arnold also said Congress didn't mean to include floor plans because the works covered by the law all relate to artistic expression, and floor plans are functional.

The fact that the statute applies only when a building is publicly visible also indicated that it wasn't intended to apply to floor plans because these "typically stem from someone's access to the interior of a building," Arnold said.

Arnold reversed the decision and remanded the case to the district court, but said other defenses like fair use may still apply.

"Just because we close one door to protection from liability doesn't mean that others aren't standing open," Arnold said.

A separate copyright dispute at the 8th Circuit between Designworks and architects that built allegedly infringing homes is still pending.

The case is Designworks Home Inc v. Columbia House of Brokers Realty Inc, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-3608.

For Designworks: Andrew Grimm and Gregory Keenan of the Digital Justice Foundation

For Columbia: Patrick Kuehl of Rimon and Jeffrey Simon of Husch Blackwell

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Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Reach him at blake.brittain@thomsonreuters.com