Humphreys V. Lessard

06/24/2015 by Attorney Sean M. Golden

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Authored by attorney Sean Golden

A Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia recently continued the trend among courts in Virginia of limiting copyright protection in architectural works in the decision of Humphreys & Partners Architects, L.P. v. Lessard Design, Inc., et al.1  Humphreys, an architect, had designed a condominium building called Grant Park that was constructed in Minneapolis.  A few years later, Humphreys submitted a proposal for an apartment project in McLean, Virginia, to be called Two Crest Park.  As part of its proposal to be architect for the Two Crest Park project, Humphreys submitted illustrations of the Grant Park design.

Humphreys lost its bid to be project architect to Lessard Design, a Virginia-based architecture firm.2  After the design of the Two Crest Park project was complete and construction had begun, Humphreys sued Lessard, the property’s owner, the fee developer, and the contractor for copyright infringement.  Humphreys argued that the Two Crest Park design infringed on its copyright in the design of the Grant Park condominiums.

Specifically, Humphreys asserted in its lawsuit that the Grant Park and Two Park Crest designs were impermissibly similar because they shared the following nine features:

1. They were both high-rise residential buildings;

2. They both had two elevator cores connected by a fire or service corridor;

3. They both featured direct access from the residential units to an elevator lobby;

4. Both had a barbell-shaped floor plan;

5. Each had a mechanical/electrical room space at one end of the service corridor and a trash chute at the other end;

6. Both featured exit stairwells adjacent to the elevators;

7. They both had corner units with diagonal entry access;

8. Each had alternating vertical elements; and

9. Both featured projecting elements at the cornice of the roof line.

Lessard and the other defendants filed motions for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss the claims against them.  The court granted the defendants’ motions and dismissed the case.

In doing so, the court analyzed each of the nine allegedly similar features.  It noted that copyright law protects the design of a building, which includes “the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design,” but does not extend to “individual standard features”, such as windows, doors, staple building components, standard configurations of spaces, and design elements that are functionally required.

The court concluded that each of the nine allegedly similar features amounted to nothing more than “standard features”, and thus were not individually protectable under copyright law.  The court went further, though, holding that the features in the Grant Park condominium building – whether viewed in isolation or as an arrangement of spaces – were not substantially similar to those in the Two Park Crest design.

1 43 F.Supp.3d 644 (E.D.Va. 2014).
The firm actually selected for the project was Lessard Urban.  Lessard Urban was later dissolved, and Lessard Design was the successor entity to Lessard Urban.

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