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Blueprint Blooper: Floor Plan Copyright Infringement Requires Virtually Identical Copying

Addressing whether a home builder’s floor plans infringed the plaintiff’s architectural copyrights, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s entry of summary judgment against the plaintiff, finding that only a virtually identical design would infringe the plaintiff’s “thin copyright” in its floor plans. Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction, Inc., Case No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. Apr. 23, 2021) (Sykes, J.)

Design Basics, described bluntly by the Seventh Circuit as a “copyright troll,” holds copyrights in thousands of floor plans for suburban single-family homes. Design Basics sued Signature Construction (Signature) for infringement of 10 of its designs. Discovery showed that Signature held copies of four of Design Basics’ designs, one of which had been marked up by a Signature employee. Signature moved for summary judgment, relying on a 2017 Seventh Circuit opinion in Basic Designs v. Lexington Homes in which the Court found that Design Basics’ copyright protection in its floor plans was “thin.” The district court granted summary judgment against Design Basics, and this appeal followed.

Relying heavily on Lexington Homes, the Seventh Circuit took the opportunity to clarify the elements of a prima facie case of copyright infringement for works with “thin” copyright protection. The Court explained that to establish infringement, the plaintiff must prove (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) copying of original elements of the work. Because ownership was not contested in this case, the Court focused on the copying element. The Court explained that “copying” constitutes two separate questions: Whether the defendant actually copied the plaintiff’s protected work (as opposed to creating it independently) and whether the copying constituted wrongful copying, also known as unlawful appropriation.

Because there is rarely direct evidence of copying, circumstantial evidence may be used to infer actual copying, the Seventh Circuit explained. Proving actual copying by circumstantial evidence requires evidence of access to the plaintiff’s work and evidence of substantial similarity between the two works. The analysis of substantial similarity is not limited to the protected elements of the plaintiff’s work; any similarities may be probative of actual copying. However, the unlawful appropriation prong requires substantial similarities to the protected elements of the copyrighted work. The Court noted that the use of the same term for two different tests has caused confusion, and therefore implemented the term “probative similarity” when referring to actual copying, and “substantial similarity” in the case of unlawful appropriation. The Court went on to explain that in the case of thin copyright protection such as this, proving unlawful appropriation requires more than a substantial similarity; only a “virtually identical” plan will infringe.

The Seventh Circuit then turned to the issues of scènes à faire and merger. Citing its detailed analysis in Lexington Homes, the Court noted that arrangements of rooms in Design Basics’ floor plans were largely scènes à faire, deserving no copyright protection. For example, placement of the dining room near the kitchen and a bathroom near the bedrooms is rudimentary, commonplace and standard, and [...]

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By the Book: Unauthorized Material Doesn’t Forfeit Training Guide’s Copyright Protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a copyright owner in a lawsuit alleging infringement of the copyright in a home-services training manual, finding that the jury was correctly instructed that a work’s incorporation of some copyrighted content does not invalidate the copyright in the work’s original parts. Hiller LLC v. Success Grp. Int’l Learning Alliance LLC, Case No. 19-6115 (6th Cir. Sept. 23, 2020) (Suhrheinrich, J.).

Hiller is a home-services company providing HVAC services. Hiller was a paying member of Success Group International, which offered customer service training to home services companies. Success Group conducted training courses using manuals copyrighted by its owner, Clockwork Home Services. Hiller sent its employees to Success Group’s courses and had access to the manuals. Clockwork later sold Success Group to another company, but retained ownership of the copyrights in the manuals and granted a perpetual license for use of the manuals in Success Group’s training business.

Hiller later hired a contractor to create a more interactive training guide for its technicians as a replacement for the manuals. To create the guide, the contractor conducted a two-day workshop with Hiller employees and representatives from Success Group. The workshop included a series of interactive brainstorming sessions. One of the manuals was referred to during the workshop. Ultimately the new guide incorporated some content generated at the design workshop. Other “gap-filling” content was taken directly from the manuals. The contractor also added other original content. The contractor assigned its copyright in the guide to Hiller.

The Success Group subsequently conducted a training class using a workbook that closely resembled the guide. Hiller ended its Success Group membership and sued Success Group for copyright infringement for its use of the workbook. Clockwork intervened, alleging that it owned the guide and seeking declaratory relief invalidating Hiller’s copyright in the guide. Following a seven-day trial, a jury concluded that Hiller had a valid copyright in the guide and that the Success Group workbook copied protected elements of the guide. Clockwork moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the district court denied. Success Group ultimately settled with Hiller. Clockwork appealed.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed. First, the Court found that sufficient evidence supported the jury’s verdict that Hiller owned a copyright in the guide. The Court rejected Clockwork’s two-pronged argument that the guide lacked independently created material (required to meet the Copyright Act’s originality requirement) and that Hiller should lose its copyright because the guide contained content taken from the manuals. Based on its selection and organization, the guide contained enough originality created independently by or on behalf of Hiller (through Hiller’s contractor) to meet the originality threshold for copyright protection. The original material included information and graphical depictions selected and organized at the design workshop. The Court also rejected Clockwork’s argument that Hiller should lose copyright protection because the guide was based on Clockwork’s “copyrighted system.” Copyright protection does not preclude others from copying or using the underlying ideas contained [...]

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