In a June 3, 2010 opinion, Judge Hudson denied summary judgment of copyright noninfringement in the case of The Harvester, Inc. v. Rule Joy Trammell + Rubio, LLC, Civil Action No. 3:09cv358 (E.D. Virginia). Plaintiff Commonwealth Architects claimed that Rule Joy Trammell + Rubio LLC (“Rule Joy”) infringed its copyright held in a set of architectural drawings involving the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Specifically, Commonwealth Architects alleged that Rule Joy violated its copyright by (1) making wholesale copies of the drawings by scanning them in a .PDF file and (2) incorporating particular aspects of the drawings into Rule Joy’s own drawings prepared for the Hotel after Commonwealth Architects was replaced on the renovation project.
Rule Joy argued that Commonwealth Architects did own any valid copyright in the Architectural Drawings and that Rule Joy did not copy any protected elements of the Architectural Drawings into its own drawings for the Hotel project. Recognizing that the Fourth Circuit did not appear to “ever have analyzed squarely” the copyright interest held in architectural drawings, the Court adopted the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning in Intervest Constr., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc., 554 F.3d 914 (11th Cir. 2008), and concluded that Commonwealth Architects owned “a thin, but valid, copyright” in the Architectural Drawings. The court explained that the “protected expression” in an architectural work is “the arrangement and coordination” of the individually unprotected “common elements” (those selected by the marketplace – i.e., rooms, windows, doors, etc.) and as a result, the copyright protection is necessarily thin. Additionally, copyright protection is only extended to those components of the work original to the author. That was important here as the Architectural Drawings were based upon preexisting works (the original design of the Hotel and subsequent renovations). Despite this, the court held that while Rule Joy had shown that certain portions of the Architectural Drawings were undeserving of protection, it had not “demonstrated that every single design choice – every single arrangement and coordination of design elements – in Commonwealth’s drawings is unprotected.”
With the Drawings deserving of protection, the court held that the fact that Rule Joy had sent the Drawings to a professional scanning service to perform the electronic copying, as opposed to physically placing the documents in a scanner on its own, did not cut off exposure to copyright infringement liability. Using a scanner is equivalent to using a photocopier to print a physical copy and is an infringement of the owner’s right of reproduction. As such, the court did not need to reach the issue of whether any of the protected expression was incorporated into Rule Joy’s own drawings and summary judgment was denied.
This case is an important opinion for copyright protection for architectural drawings in the Fourth Circuit and worth a closer read, particularly if you have clients who are architects or you have some architectural drawings of your own lying around.