A recent decision out of the Southern District of Indiana, Design Basics, LLC et al. v. Kerstiens Homes & Designs, Inc., et al., Case No. 1:16-cv-00726, struck a blow against an architectural design company and marked a victory for builders and home designers.
Kerstiens Homes & Designs is a residential construction company based in Jasper, Indiana. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, Design Basics is a company that owns the rights to thousands of home plans it licenses to builders and other customers. In conducting market research for potential expansion into Indiana, Design Basics’ director of business development found on Kerstiens Home & Designs’ website what he believed were infringing copies of Design Basics’ architectural plans. Design Basics subsequently brought a copyright infringement action against Kerstiens alleging Kerstiens violated its “[e]xclusive rights in certain architectural works and technical drawings depicting architectural works.” Both parties subsequently moved for summary judgment.
Under the United States Copyright Act, copyright protection is extended to architectural works, which is defined to be “[t]he design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features.”
Although Kerstiens’ and Design Basics’ respective home designs were reported to share certain similarities, the Court found in favor of Kerstiens with regard to all subject plan designs. In rendering its decision, the Court relied on a 2017 decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in which Design Basics was also a party (see Design Basics v. Lexington Homes, Inc., 858 F.3d 1093, (7th Cir. 2017), determining there are only so many ways that rooms and areas within a home can be arranged and not every portion of a floor plan enjoys copyright protection. Finding against Design Basics’ copyright infringement claims, the Seventh Circuit noted that“[w]hen floor plans are drawn in a customary style and to industry standards, even subtle differences can indicate that there is no copyright infringement.” Applying this standard, the Southern District of Indiana found no copyright infringement had occurred and granted Kerstiens’ motion for summary judgment.
These decisions show that mere similarity is not enough for a party’s copyright infringement claim to succeed. Absent certain circumstances, such as a plaintiff showing that another company had access to its plans in creating its own similar designs, close resemblance is insufficient for a finding of copyright infringement. These decisions should serve as protection for builders and home designers against copyright trolls.
About the Author
Shannon S. Frank, a Partner at Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn, LLP (KDDK), in Evansville, Indiana, has more than 25 years’ experience in the practice of business law, construction law, estate planning and probate administration, health care law, and real estate law. Shannon takes prides in giving exceptional service to her clients, recognizing that relationships with clients play a significant and essential role in providing tailored and comprehensive legal advice.