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T-Peg v. Vermont Timber Works

1st Cir., (August 18, 2006) (“‘architectural work’ a work of authorship” to which “copyright holder has certain exclusive rights”; “shop drawings” as well as “frame actually erected” may be infringing works).

T-Peg v. Vermont Timber Works is a case of first impression for the First Circuit to address the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, which created a new category of copyrightable subject matter for “architectural works” (“design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings”).  Included in the definition of “architectural work” is “the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design”.  Standard features, such as “common windows, doors, and other staple building components” are excluded from protection.

In this case, T-Peg (or, Timberpeg) created architectural plans for a timberframe residence for a client and registered a set of preliminary plans as an architectural work with the Copyright Office.  Later, the plans were given to the client who filed them with the town to obtain a building permit.  The client elected to not use T-Peg to construct his home, but hired Vermont Timber Works (VTW) for the job. VTW has no architects on staff and neither designs buildings nor creates architectural plans; it uses specifications provided by the customer to create shop drawings.  Subsequently VTW completed final revisions to its shop drawings, which showed a frame which was, “in some ways similar to, and in other ways different from” the main house in T-Peg’s registered preliminary plan.  Finally, VTW erected a “frame as provided for in [its] shop drawings”.

During the design process, T-Peg created not one, but three sets of preliminary plans. The second, however, was the only one registered. During the case, it was undisputed that VTW was provided with a copy of the first (unregistered) set. VTW, however, asserted it had never seen the second (registered) set.  T-Peg asserted that the details of its registered set of plans, which were in the possession of the client (as well as publicly available via the building permit filing), were provided to VTW by the client.

Under the Copyright Act, “one infringes when he or she violates one of the exclusive rights to a work held by a copyright owner.”  To establish infringement, one of the elements that must be proven is “copying of constituent elements of the work that are original”.  Copying may be shown to be “so extensive that it render[s] the infringing and copyrighted works ‘substantially’ similar”.  A building itself may infringe. There were numerous similarities between T-Peg’s registered plans and VTW’s shop drawings and the frame as constructed. For example, all had “a backwards-L-shaped footprint with exactly the same dimensions”, “a kitchen ‘bump-out’ along a western wall”, “a central switchback staircase”, “a lofted second floor” of specific dimensions in a specific location, and identical roof pitch and dimensions. There were also several less-significant differences.

Defendant VTW prevailed at the district court as the judge concluded that the differences were such that “no reasonable jury could conclude there was substantial similarity”.  The First Circuit disagreed.  The final question to be considered at trial was, the First Circuit held, “[W]hether . . . VTW’s frame as drawn and built is substantially similar to Timberpeg’s architectural work (which includes ‘the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements of the design”) as embodied in the second preliminary plans for the . . . house.”  As noted by the Court, “This does not necessarily turn on whether Timberpeg completed a complete frame design or not.”

Click here to view the full opinion.