Is Your House Designer Creative or a Copier? Judge Finds an Issue of Fact Whether a House Design Infringed on a Previous Designer’s Copyright
In Bruemmer v. Reardon, Case No. 1:11-cv-988 (W.D. Mich.), Judge Bell denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment because he found that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendants infringed on the plaintiffs' copyright design of a residential house. The court found that an issue of fact existed as to both of the required elements of a copyright infringement claim:
- that the plaintiffs owned a valid copyright—i.e., whether the plaintiffs' house design possessed a minimal degree of creativity and was independently created by the plaintiffs; and
- that the defendants copied elements of the plaintiffs' original work.
Marla Bruemmer, through her company Design Evolutions Inc., created drawings for the design of a custom home on Austin Lake in Portage, Michigan. The property owners paid Bruemmer for the drawings, and Bruemmer applied for copyright protection of the drawings. The property owners, however, hired a different designer and contractor to construct their house. The plaintiffs, Ms. Bruemmer and her design company, alleged that the defendants utilized her copyrighted materials to design and erect the property owner's house.
The defendants made three arguments that the plaintiffs' copyright was not protectable, but Judge Bell found that a genuine issue of fact existed as to each argument. First, interestingly, the defendants argued that the plaintiff designer actually copied the defendant designer's house designs, which the plaintiffs refuted. The contrary assertions of fact, of course, created an issue of fact. Second, even though the plaintiffs' drawings use common features in houses in the public domain, an issue of fact exists as to whether the overall arrangement and combination of the common design features are sufficiently original to be afforded copyright protection. Third, despite the property owners giving detailed specifications for the drawings, Judge Bell could not say as a matter of law the extent to which the property owners' preferences accounted for the degree of similarity between the plaintiffs' drawings and the defendants' drawings.
If anything, this opinion and case can be a caution to residential home builders, such as construction companies or general contractors, when constructing houses or buildings pursuant to a designer's drawings. A defendant, like the defendants here, could be forced to litigate a case like this even though that home builder might not have had anything to do with the design of the house.
It might be up to a jury to decide whether the property owner's designer was creative, or just a plain ol' copier.