Architectural floor plans are copyrightable as architectural works under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. Sec. 101, et seq.). The Copyright Act defines an architectural work as “the 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,” such as common windows, doors and other staple building components.
Requirements for Copyright Infringement
The recent copyright infringement case of Home Design Services, Inc. v. Turner Heritage Homes, No. 15-11912 (11th Cir. June 17, 2016) dealt with the scope of copyright protection as it applies to floor plans. Copyright infringement has two requirements: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of [protectable] elements. Although it is advisable to apply for a copyright registration for house floor plans, which is a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit in Federal Court, floor plans, like any other work are entitled to copyright protection only to the extent they qualify as “original works of authorship.” In other words, not every nook and cranny of an architectural work is entitled to copyright protection.
In the Home Design Services case cited above, the two floor plans in question were substantially similar as they shared the same general layout. However, the similarity was because both plans followed the customary four-three split style, as well as other industry standard features. In other words, there was nothing unusual or different from the floor plans of many homes on the market. Thus, the Court held that there was no copyright infringement.
Separate Elements of The Floor Plan
In determining whether there is copyright infringement with respect to floor plans, a Court separates the non-copyrightable elements of a floor plan from the copyrightable elements and then compares the copyrightable elements to ascertain if such are “substantially similar.” Thus, if the similarities between two floor plans concerns only non-copyrightable elements, then there is no copyright infringement.
New Case is a Warning to Architects and Designers
In conclusion, the take away lesson from the copyright infringement cases on floor plans is that architects and home designers should incorporate some original elements into their floor plans so a Federal Court will be more likely to find copyright infringement.