Residential Developer Allegedly Infringes On Copyright Architectural Designs


Architecture Expert

Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Design Basics, LLC v. Petros Homes
Citation: 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102931

In this copyright infringement case involving residential home designs, the defendant homebuilder retained an architecture expert witness to compare the designs in question and discuss standard industry architectural design elements. Although the plaintiff attempted to exclude the expert’s opinion on the grounds that he was unfamiliar with copyright law, the court ultimately denied the motion, finding that in the context of this case, the expert’s ability to assist the trier of fact in the understanding of architectural design was not dependent upon knowledge of copyright law.

Facts

Building design firm and plaintiff, Design Basics, Inc., filed a lawsuit against the defendant homebuilder, Petros Homes, Inc., claiming that the defendant copied Design Basics’ protected design plans when developing and selling residential homes. In a prior order, the court granted partial summary judgment on the first element of the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim — that the plaintiff owned valid copyrights. The remaining issue concerned whether the defendants copied original or protectable aspects of the plaintiff’s design plans.

The matter before the court concerned the plaintiff’s motion to exclude the defendant architecture expert’s opinion evidence. The plaintiff sought exclusion on the grounds that the expert’s opinions and conclusions failed to satisfy the requirements set forth in Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

The Architecture Expert

The defendant’s expert was an architect registered in three different states. He earned a bachelor of architecture from the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture in 1978 and had worked in the field since 1976. He was affiliated with several different national organizations related to his profession and his work had been published in a variety of local publications and magazines. Although the expert was a registered architect with many years of industry experience, however, he was not familiar with copyright law, the Berne Convention, or the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act.

In his report, the defendant’s expert architect described certain elements of the plaintiff’s designs that were considered standard features and listed standard materials used in the industry. After identifying the standard features of residential house design, the expert examined each of the designs in question and opined that the plaintiff’s designs consisted solely of standard, non-protected elements. The expert’s report also included a side-by-side comparison of the parties’ design features.

Arguments For Exclusion

The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s expert was unfamiliar with copyright law and therefore should not be permitted to serve as an expert in this case. The plaintiff criticized the legal resources listed in the architecture expert’s report and contended that the expert’s opinions regarding public domain were erroneous. The plaintiff described the expert’s opinions as mere ipse dixit arguing they were not based on a reliable methodology.

Discussion

The defendants argued that the expert was a registered architect and that his expertise would assist the court in determining whether the parties’ designs were substantially similar. The defense further argued that the architect’s references to copyright law did not render his opinion inadmissible because as an architect, he was qualified to testify regarding the originality and functional aspects of the plaintiff’s designs.

Held

The motion to exclude Expert’s opinion was granted in part and denied in part.

The court found that the architect’s expertise could assist the court and/or the trier of fact in determining the standard elements of residential homes as well as the similarities and differences between the parties’ designs. The court also found the plaintiff’s arguments regarding the expert’s lack of familiarity with copyright infringement law, unreliable methodology, and questionable legal resources unpersuasive. For purposes of this case, the expert was not expected to be an expert in copyright law. The fact that the expert based his testimony largely on his own experience did not necessarily disqualify him as an expert.

The court recognized that the compilation of design features in an architectural work could be afforded copyright protection, even if the individual design features themselves might not be. “A work may be protected by copyright law when its otherwise unprotectable elements are arranged in a unique way.” T-Peg, Inc. v. Vt. Timber Works, Inc., 459 F.3d 110, 110 (1st Cir. 2006). Even so, that did not mean, as the plaintiff suggested, that a comparison of the individual design features was completely irrelevant. The Copyright Act’s definition of “architectural work” excludes “individual standard features” from the protectable elements of the design. 17 U.S.C. § 101. Thus, both the identification of standard design elements and the analysis of how they are put together were considered relevant to the copyright infringement analysis.

The court agreed with the plaintiff on one issue – that the expert should not be permitted to testify as to the ultimate issue that must be decided in this case. He was not permitted to testify as to his opinion on the ultimate issue of fact, to provide legal opinions, or to dictate the conclusion of this case.

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