Architectural Concepts and Copyright Protection: Venezuela Pty Ltd v Bright

A recent decision in the West Australian District Court serves as a reminder that ideas are not protected by copyright.

Facts

In 2008 Mr Bright, the defendant, purchased a $5.2 million block of land in Bicton, West Australia. In December 2008, Mr Bright engaged Venezuela Pty Ltd trading as Craig Shields Homes to develop concept drawings for a house which Mr Bright wished to build on his newly acquired land. Mr Bright liked the style and finish of one of the plaintiff’s display homes, and after visiting a house in Mermaid Beach, Queensland, requested that features of the Mermaid Beach house be added to the concept design.

The concept design was completed mid-2009, and in August 2009 the plaintiff agreed to convert these preliminary plans into a more detailed architectural plan. That agreement specified that the plans remained the plaintiff’s property, and that copyright in the plans was owned by the plaintiff. Not long after the detailed plans were presented to Mr Bright in September 2009 the relationship between the parties broke down. Mr Bright then engaged Ross Griffin Homes to design a house for Mr Bright. The house designed by Ross Griffin Homes had a similar layout to the design by the plaintiff, but differed in several other respects.

Issues

The plaintiff claimed that Mr Bright provided Ross Griffin Homes with the plaintiff’s design, and that Ross Griffin Homes then used those plans to produce the design that was ultimately built on Mr Bright’s land. It was also claimed that Mr Bright gave Ross Griffin Homes the plans and authorised the plans to be copied, or that Mr Brihgt “steered” Ross Griffin Homes “step-by-step, instruction by instruction, to substantially reproduce them”.

The plaintiff brought an action against Mr Bright for authorisation of copyright infringement, claiming general damages including damages for loss of profit and flagrancy of the infringement.

Decision

It was accepted that the plaintiff’s plans were protected by copyright, however District Court Judge Sweeney rejected the idea that the defendant sought to duplicate the plaintiff’s design with another builder, and accepted that Ross Griffin Homes independently developed the design for Mr Bright’s home. Sweeney DCJ also found that there was no actual copying of the plaintiff’s design, and that any similarities between the designs were the result of Mr Bright’s desires and wishes in terms of the layout of the house: “what motivated [Mr Bright] could only have been a desire to have the house he wanted”. Since no copying had occurred, Mr Bright could not be found liable for authorising copyright infringement, and the plaintiff’s claim was dismissed.

Comment

Where a commissioning client has a specific unique idea or concept in mind for a building design, it will be more difficult to establish copyright infringement.

Read the full decision here, or learn more about architecture and copyright from our book Architecture, Building Design & Copyright