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10th Cir. Takes up Architectural Copyright for First Time

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

A Colorado couple who built a three-bedroom ranch house did not infringe upon the architectural copyright of a custom home designer, the Tenth Circuit ruled on Tuesday. Savant Home, a custom home builder, created a model three-bedroom ranch house in Windsor, Colorado. That house was toured by Ron and Tammie Wagner, who later built their own, similar three-bedroom ranch house.

But when Savant sued, the Tenth Circuit found that the houses' similarity was not enough to amount to a copyright infringement. The unanimous three-judge panel decision is the first to address architectural copyright infringement in the Tenth, Reuters reports, and the first time the court has endorsed the "abstraction-filtration-comparison" test for such claims.

Your House Looks Like My House

Savant built its model ranch house based on the "Anders plan." That plan is for a three bedroom ranch house; two smaller bedrooms on one side, the master on the other, and a family, dining, and kitchen area in between. The Wagners toured Savant's home in 2009, but later decided to hire a builder and construct their own home. That home was also a three bedroom ranch, with the master separated from the other bedrooms by living and eating space.

Savant sued, alleging that the Wagners had ripped off their protected design. The Wagners responded by moving for summary judgment, arguing that the aspects of the Anders Plan Savant alleges were infringed were in fact standard among ranch houses. While the Copyright Act expressly protects architectural works, the individual standard elements of an architectural work are not protected.

Savant Needs More Than Just a Claim of Triable Issues

The district court granted summary judgment for the Wagners, finding that Savant had failed to meet its summary judgment burden and, even if it had, that the house plans could not be substantially similar under the "abstraction-filtration-comparison" test. On appeal, the Tenth agreed.

Both sides had put forward expert reports to advance their infringement claims and defenses. Savant's expert claimed that the Wagners' house and the Anders plan had "shocking similarities," but did not identify specific, protectable features in Savant's home.

Savant argued that there were triable issues over whether the houses were substantially similar. But that assertion alone is not enough, the court explained, noting that Savant "failed to argue which aspects of the Anders Plan were protectable or cite any supporting evidence."

The AFC Test Is Just Fine

The Tenth Circuit also rejected Savant's claim that the AFC test was an improper mode of analysis. Courts use the AFC test to determine if two works are substantially similar. First, the court separates out abstract ideas, which are not protectable, from particular works, which are. Second, the court filters out nonprotectable components of a work, such as standard architectural features. Finally, with what remains, the court examines whether two works are substantially similar.

Apply that test, the district court found that the elements of the Anders plan were not protectable. Savant argued, however, that the AFC test was wholly inappropriate. Savant argued that the circuit's ruling in Blehm v. Jacobs made the AFC test inapplicable. That case cited approvingly a D.C. Circuit decision emphasizing the need to evaluate a works "overall look and feel."

But that does not invalidate the AFC test, the Tenth reasoned. Indeed the two are complimentary, working to separate "unprotectable ideas from protectable expression." In the non-architectural context, the AFC test has been used "to analyze content as diverse as computer programs and wooden dolls," the court explained.

And it if works for wooden dolls, it works just as well for ranch houses.

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