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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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Jersey Boys Don’t Cry: No Copyright Protection for Facts “Based on a True Story”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law finding that the musical Jersey Boys did not infringe a copyright held in an autobiography of band member Tommy DeVito. Donna Corbello v. Frankie Valli, et al., Case No. 17-16337 (9th Cir. Sept. 8, 2020) (Berzon, J.).

In the 1990s, Rex Woodard ghostwrote an autobiography of Tommy DeVito, one of the original members of the 1950s quartet the Four Seasons. Woodard and DeVito agreed to split the profits equally. However, shortly after finishing the book, and before finding a publisher, Woodard died. Donna Corbello, Woodard’s widow, became the successor-in-interest to the book, and she continued the search for a publisher. Almost 15 years later, Corbello still had not published the book.

DeVito’s autobiography reads as a straightforward historical account of the Four Seasons. At the beginning of the book, DeVito, as the narrator, describes his autobiography as a “complete and truthful chronicle of the Four Seasons,” and he promises not to let “bitterness taint the true story.” Corbello also sent letters to potential publishers emphasizing that the book provided a “behind-the-scenes” look at the Four Seasons. In all accounts, the book is a non-fiction, historical chronicle of events of the Four Seasons.

In 2005, the musical Jersey Boys debuted on Broadway. Jersey Boys also depicts the history of the Four Seasons from its origins in New Jersey to its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. DeVito admitted to working with people involved in developing Jersey Boys and sharing the book with the individuals researching the history of the band.

In 2007, Corbello sued DeVito and 14 defendants, including the band members and the writers, directors and producers of Jersey Boys. The complaint included 20 causes of action, including various forms of copyright infringement. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on most of the claims. Corbello appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, vacated its assessment of costs against Corbello, and remanded for further proceedings.

On remand, the case proceeded to a jury trial where the jury found that the musical infringed the book and that use of the book was not fair use. After the verdict, the district court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, concluding that any infringement was fair use. Corbello appealed.

On appeal, the central disagreements were whether the musical was substantially similar to the book and whether the defendants copied any protectable portions of the book. The Ninth Circuit analyzed the similarities under the extrinsic test for substantial similarity. The appellate court found that each of the similarities failed because they involved only non-protectable elements of the book. Those non-protectable elements included DeVito depicting himself in the musical (a character based on a historical figure is not protected); Bob Gaudio arriving late to rehearsal, excited about a new song he just [...]

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