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Floor Plans of Mice and Men: Standard Elements and Original Arrangements

Posted by James Juo | Jan 18, 2023 | 0 Comments

For floor plans that embody an architectural work such as a single-family house, the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design of the house may be protectable by copyright, but not individual standard features. Indeed, the Copyright Act defines “architectural works” as follows:

An “architectural work” is the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features.

 17 U.S.C. § 101.

As discussed by the Tenth Circuit in Savant Homes, Inc. v. Collins, 809 F.3d 1133, 1139–40 (10th Cir. 2016):

          Thus, individual standard elements of architectural works are not protected, but original selections or arrangements of such elements may be protectable. See Blehm v. Jacobs, 702 F.3d 1193, 1201–02 (10th Cir. 2012) (“[T]he combination of common architectural elements and use of specific designs may constitute original expression that is protected.”); Zalewski v. Cicero Builder Dev., Inc., 754 F.3d 95, 103–04 (2d Cir. 2014) (explaining that the protectable elements of an architectural work include “original elements—or original arrangements of elements”); Intervest Const., Inc. v. Canterbury Estate Homes, Inc., 554 F.3d 914, 919 (11th Cir. 2008) (“[W]hile individual standard features and architectural elements classifiable as ideas or concepts are not themselves copyrightable, an architect's original combination or arrangement of such elements may be.”); Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 281 F.3d 1287, 1296 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (“[P]rotectible expression may arise through the ways in which artists combine even unprotectible elements. For example, while color is not protectible, the manner in which an artist selects, coordinates, and arranges color may be.” (quotations and alterations omitted)).

In Savant Homes, the defendants visited a model house embodying a house design known as the “Anders Plan.” The defendants obtained a brochure of the Anders Plan from the plaintiff, who later alleged that a house constructed by the defendants had infringed the copyright for the floor plans for the Anders Plan. But, notwithstanding the alleged “shocking similarities,” the Anders Plan “consisted of standard elements and standard arrangements of elements,” and such “standard content receives no copyright protection.” Id. at 1136 and 1142. The plaintiff had “failed to show that any elements of the Anders Plan were protectable.” Id. at 1140.

Thus, the Tenth Circuit affirmed summary judgment of no infringement.

The attorneys at Thomas P. Howard, LLC litigate copyright cases in Colorado.

About the Author

James Juo

James Juo is an experienced intellectual property attorney. He has successfully litigated various intellectual property disputes involving patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. He also has counseled clients on the scope and validity of patent and trademark rights.


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