How Much of My Floor Plan Designs Can My Competitor Copy?
Of course floor plans can be protected with copyright. The more difficult question of how much of your floor plan is entitled to protection after receiving a copyright, and how much your floor plan can copy or borrow from another floor plan was recently analyzed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Home Design Services, Inc. v. Turner Heritage Homes Inc., No. 15–11912, — — F.3d — — (11th Cir. June 17, 2016).
He Copied the Design of My Floor Plan And Should Pay Me
In 1991, Home Design Services (“Home Design”) registered its architectural floor plan “HDS-2089” with the Copyright Office. In 1999 Turner Heritage Homes (“Turner”) created the Laurent floor plan and then slightly modified the Laurent to create the Dakota floor plan.
The plans depict a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a “master” bedroom or suite on one end and three more bedrooms on the other side (a “four-three split plan”). The plans “share in common the same set of rooms, arranged in the same overall layout.” The plans also “share the presence, location, and function of many (but not all) walls, entryways, windows, and fixtures.”
According to Home Design, Turner’s floor plans, the Laurent and the Dakota, infringe on HDS-2089. Even with all these similarities, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.
How Much of the Floor Plan Is Protected?
Not every “nook and cranny” of an architectural floor plan enjoys copyright protection. They only receive protection to the extent that they qualify as “original works of authorship.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). And like any work, floor plans are subject to the “fundamental axiom that copyright protection does not extend to ideas but only to particular expressions of ideas.” Oravec v. Sunny Isles Luxury Ventures, LLC, 527 F.3d 1218 (11th Cir. 2008). For example, “any author may draw from the history of English-speaking peoples, but no one may copy from A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Any artist may portray the Spanish civil War, but no one may paint another Guernica. And anyone may draw a cartoon mouse, but there can be only one Mickey.” Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Dev., Inc., 754 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 2014).
The Copyright Act also restricts which elements of architectural floor plans are protectable, for example, individual standard features are not included. 17 USC § 101. “Individual standard features” include “common windows, doors, and other staple building components.” H.R. Rep. No. 101–735 (1990). However, the arrangement of the individual standard features may be protectable.
In the Eleventh Circuit, courts ask “whether a reasonable jury could find the competing designs substantially similar at the level of protected expression” Home Design Services, Inc. v. Turner Heritage Homes Inc., No. 15–11912, — — F.3d — — (11th Cir. June 17, 2016). The Second Circuit explains, “if the similarity between the two works concerns only non-copyrightable elements then there can be no copyright infringement.” Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Dev., Inc., 754 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 2014). For example, customary styles (e.g., the style of a colonial home) and efficiency-or expectation-driven industry standards (e.g., a closet in every bedroom) cannot be copyrighted.
The Floor Plans Are Not Unusual
Turning to the designs, the court explained that the design choices in HDS-2089 are not unusual. The plan was not radically different from many things on the market. Both HDS-2089 and the Turner plans share the same general layout because they both follow the “four-three split style” and industry standards. This customary style of a four-three split plan is not entitled to copyright protection. The court explained that no one owns a copyright to the idea of a four-three split style, nor to industry standards that architects regularly heed to achieve such a split.
However, there were differences between HDS-2089 and the Turner Plans. These differences were “in dimensions, wall placement, and the presence, arrangement, and function of particular features around the house.” Those differences show that there was no infringement on the arrangement of the individual standard features. And therefore, Turner was not liable for copyright infringement.
Sure, another floor plan might look similar to your floor plan. There are, after all, only so many ways to divide a rectangular home into a “four-three plan.” The question an architect should ask when designing a floor plan for copyright protection is, is this plan actually unique? Remember, the standard elements of the designs are not protectable. The question an architect should ask when thinking of bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement, is, are there subtle differences in the arrangement of the features? These questions will help guide an architect and his or her attorney in planning a successful lawsuit.