Copyright only protects the non-standard elements of an architectural plan. Architectural plans, by their nature, incorporate elements that have been in the public domain for centuries, such as doors, windows and types of rooms in a house. Copyright Law calls those standard elements “scènes à faire”. Home developers use a combination of standard elements to create floor plans. Sometimes, the developer comes up with a unique feature. When that happens, the developer has a copyright in the unique feature. The plaintiff in Design Basics LLC v. Lexington Homes, Inc., publishes home floor plans and licenses them on a retail basis. Design Basics sued Lexington Homes for copyright infringement of its floor plans. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in Lexington Homes’ favor. The Court agreed with the District Court that a jury could not find that Lexington Homes’ plans were substantially similar to Design Basics’ plans. The graphic to the left illustrates the point by juxta positioning a Design Basics floor plan with a Lexington Homes floor plan. If you take the scènes à faire out of the equation, Design Basics seems to have very little protectable elements. But there’s more. The Court, in dicta, discussed Design Basics' litigation history and used the opportunity to criticize Intellectual Property trolls. As of April 2017, Design Basics had brought over 100 copyright infringement lawsuits. Design Basics trawled the Internet and paid employees to find "infringers". The Court expressed distaste for this type of wholesale litigation. The Court reproached plaintiffs, i.e. Intellectual Property trolls, who misuse the legal system by filing dubious lawsuits for the purpose of prompting settlements to avoid costly litigation.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. There are two lessons here. First, if you are in the business of producing works that have minimal copyright protection, the chances are that you are going to have little success in bringing infringement suits. Second, the Intellectual Property troll phenomenon is on the radar of many courts. The Design Basics opinion referenced scholarly articles, news media coverage and recent opinions deploring the abuse of the court system by Intellectual Property trolls. The best way to deal with Intellectual Property trolls is to stand up to them. It may be costly but settling with Intellectual Property trolls only encourages them.