David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates | April 7, 2019
Standard form construction contracts between an owner and design professional will address copyright protection, as well as other contractual protections, associated with a design professional’s “instruments of service.” An owner negotiating an agreement with a design professional should consider alternative language that broadens the scope of the contractual license given to it with respect to the use of the design. Regardless, a design professional’s copyright infringement claim is still a challenging claim to ultimately prevail on. While a design professional may likely survive the motion to dismiss stage in a copyright infringement claim, whether it survives the summary judgment stage is another, more challenging, story.
“To state a claim for copyright infringement a plaintiff [design professional] must assert [and prove the following two prongs]: ‘(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.’” Robert Swedroe Architect Planners, A.I.A., P.A. v. J. Milton & Associates, Inc., 2019 WL 1059836, *3 (S.D.Fla. 2019) quoting Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991).
In the first prong, the design professional must establish it complied with statutory formalities to own a valid copyright. Id.
In the second prong, the design professional must establish that the defendant copied constituent elements that are original. Id.
There is also a claim known as contributory copyright infringement.
“Contributory copyright infringement occurs where a party with knowledge of infringing activity materially contributes to the infringing conduct of another.” Robert Swedroe, 2019 WL at *4. Actual knowledge is not required – it just needs to be shown the defendant had reason to know (i.e.,knew or should have known) of the copyright infringement. Id. (citations omitted).
For example, in Robert Swedroe, an architectural firm was hired by a developer to prepare plans and specifications in connection with a residential building project. The contract was based off an AIA B141 agreement between an owner and architect. The architect was to initially prepare plans to obtain approval of the governing Planning Board and, upon approval, prepare the permit plans for the residential building. Once the Planning Board approved the project, the developer sold the property to another developer. The new developer, however, hired another architectural firm–that was provided and had access to plans from the initial architect–with the intent on moving forward with the design and construction of the residential building.
The original architect submitted its technical drawings and architectural work to the United States Copyright Office and obtained a Certificate of Registration. (Notably, this satisfied the first prong on the copyright infringement claim as the original architect satisfied statutory formalities). The original architect sued the new developer and new architect for copyright infringement asserting the new architect copied original elements of its design for the residential building project. The original architect also sued the new developer for contributory copyright infringement. The new architect and new developer moved to dismiss the copyright infringement claims. Although the trial court denied the motion to dismiss, the original architect will still need to support the burden of its copyright infringement claims. For more information on the difficulties proving a design professional’s copyright infringement claim, review this article.