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Designworks Homes, Inc. v. Thomson Sailors Homes, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

October 10, 2019

DESIGNWORKS HOMES, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
THOMSON SAILORS HOMES, LLC., et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          STEPHEN R. BOUGH, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. #131). For the reasons discussed below, the Motion is GRANTED.

         I. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires a court to grant a motion for summary judgment if 1) the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute of material fact” and 2) the moving party is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” A nonmoving party survives a summary judgment motion if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Stuart C. Irby Co. v. Tipton, 796 F.3d 918, 922 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The purpose of summary judgment “is not to cut litigants off from their right of trial by jury if they really have issues to try.” Hughes v. Am. Jawa, Ltd., 529 F.2d 21, 23 (8th Cir. 1976) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 467 (1962)).

         II. Background

         Considering the parties' statements of facts and supporting evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs as the non-moving party, the Court finds the relevant facts to be as follows:

         Plaintiff Charles Lawrence James is the sole shareholder and home designer for Plaintiff Designworks Homes, Inc., a design-build company. In 1996, Plaintiff James designed and built a home that had a “unique triangular atrium design with stairs as part of the main room” at 4306 Melrose in Columbia, Missouri. (Doc. #51, p. 4). In 1999, Plaintiff James built a second home that incorporated the triangular atrium design at 1713 Kenilworth in Columbia, Missouri. Between 1999 and 2001, Plaintiff James built a third house featuring the triangular atrium design at 4804 Chilton in Columbia, Missouri. On May 10, 2004, Plaintiffs registered the triangular atrium design as a copyrighted architectural work titled “Atrium ranch on walk-out; Angular atrium ranch” with respect to the home constructed at 4804 Chilton Court. (Doc. #51, p. 4). On June 6, 2013, Plaintiffs registered the design as a copyrighted architectural work for a house not yet constructed. On April 22, 2018, Plaintiff James registered the design as a copyrighted technical drawing with respect to the home at 4306 Melrose Drive. Also, on April 22, 2018, Plaintiff James registered the design as a copyrighted technical drawing with respect to the home at 1713 Kenilworth in Columbia, Missouri.

         On September 8, 1998, Defendant Elswood Smith Carlson Architects, P.A. created an architectural design that included a triangular atrium feature with stairs adjacent to a living room, known as the Newbury Model. Plaintiffs allege the Newbury Model infringes their copyrights. Plaintiffs allege Defendant Thomson Sailors Homes, LLC (“Thomson Sailors Homes”)[1] subsequently built thirty-five Newbury Model homes in a development in Kansas City, Missouri, that also infringed on Plaintiffs' copyrights. Plaintiffs allege Thomson Homes, LLC (“Thomson Homes”)[2] is the successor-in-interest of Thomson Sailors Homes and thus liable as a successor, and also independently liable for the copying and distribution of a brochure that depicted the allegedly infringing Newbury Model homes. Plaintiffs allege Defendant Team 3 Architects, Inc. (“Team 3 Architects”)[3] created and distributed the allegedly infringing Newbury Model house plan to Thomson Sailors Homes and/or Thomson Homes. Plaintiffs allege Thomson Sailors Homes, Team 3 Architects, and Elswood Smith Carlson all put copyright notices on the Newbury Model in violation of U.S. copyright laws.

         Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint sets forth five claims: (1) copyright infringement, Count I; (2) contributory infringement, Count II; (3) vicarious infringement, Count III; (4) accounting against Defendants Thomson Homes and Thomson Sailors Homes only, Count IV; and (5) declaratory and/or injunctive relief, Count V. All claims relate to the copyrighted triangular atrium design with stairs as part of the main room. Defendants move for summary judgment on all counts, arguing: (1) Defendants could not have infringed three of the four copyrighted works asserted by Plaintiffs because such works were created after the Newbury Model was created; (2) Plaintiffs cannot prove copying of the remaining copyrighted work; and (3) Plaintiffs are not entitled to damages.

         III. Discussion

         Defendants argue initially they could not have infringed the copyrighted works corresponding with 1713 Kenilworth, 4804 Chilton, or the house not yet constructed, because Defendants created the Newbury Model before those works were constructed. Plaintiffs argue that Defendants constructed houses that infringed on Plaintiffs' design after substantial completion of construction of the houses at 1713 Kenilworth and 4804 Chilton, which incorporated the same triangular atrium design and were derivative of the original design as constructed at 4306 Melrose. The Court finds it unnecessary to engage in such analysis because all parties agree that all claims in this case hinge on whether Defendants infringed on Plaintiffs' copyrighted triangular atrium design with stairs as part of the main room. The Court will focus its discussion on whether Plaintiffs can prove Defendants infringed on that design.

         To establish their claim of copyright infringement, Plaintiffs are “required to prove ownership of a valid copyright and copying of original elements.” Rottlund Co. v. Pinnacle Corp., 452 F.3d 726, 731 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). “Copying may be established . . . by showing that the defendants had access to the copyrighted materials and showing that substantial similarity of ideas and expression existed between the alleged infringing materials and the copyrighted materials.” Id. (internal citation omitted). “Determination of substantial similarity involves a two-step analysis[.]” Id. (citing Hartman v. Hallmark Cards, Inc., 833 F.2d 117, 120 (8th Cir. 1987)). “Similarity of ideas is evaluated extrinsically, focusing on objective similarities in the details of the works.” Id. “If the ideas are substantially similar, then similarity of expression is evaluated using an intrinsic test depending on the response of the ordinary, reasonable person to the forms of expression.” Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         The parties do not dispute the validity of Plaintiffs' copyrights. The parties dispute whether Defendants copied Plaintiffs' design.[4]

         A. ...


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