Copyrighted Designs Afford Basis for Federal Court Claims for Infringement by Architects Seeking Payment for Their Design Drawings

Disputes can arise when a design professional prepares plans for an owner and the owner then uses those plans without compensating the architect. In H2L2 Architects/Planners, LLC v. Tower Investments, Inc., a case from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the court considered the pleading requirements for unpaid architects to assert claims for payment against owners/developers for architectural design and drawings under federal law.

In H2L2, the plaintiff architect alleged that defendant developer infringed copyrighted drawings in the construction, marketing and advertisement of a residential construction project, by using the copyrighted design without making full payment for the architectural services. On defendant’s motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court set forth what pleading standards are required for a copyright infringement claim in this context under Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

The defendant argued the plaintiff failed to copyright its design drawings until four years after the parties had entered into an oral agreement for the performance of architectural services. But the court held copyrightable material is automatically protected upon its creation, as long as a copyright registration is filed within five years under 17 U.S.C. § 410(c), even if that occurs after the alleged act of infringement. Here, this was determined not to be an improper effort to “create federal jurisdiction.” Rather, the architect properly stated a claim for copyright infringement, alleging: (1) ownership of a valid copyright as to the architectural design drawings; and (2) that the defendant copied constituent elements of the work that were original. Although the court found plaintiff’s allegations were “somewhat lacking in specificity,” the complaint satisfied the standard to “render the claim plausible on its face.” In short, the architect alleged that it drew up plans for the project, defendant failed to pay for them and used the architect’s copyrighted design within its building plans for construction of the project.

At this time, when the AIA is reporting the Architecture Billings Index to be consistently on the rise, architects and other design professionals will do well to include these types of claims in complaints for unpaid design fees to protect their copyrightable design drawings.

William G. Frey is a Director in the Gibbons Business & Commerical Litigation Department and a member of the Construction Litigation Team.
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