The Facts

Building designer engaged to create plans for unique house

A couple owned a block of land in Port Douglas, Queensland, and set out to build an architecturally unique house on the land. They engaged a building designer to assist and sent an email to the designer with their ideas for the house, which included proposed specifications, four pages of draft floor plans and two photographs of houses illustrating the architectural style the couple had in mind.

The building designer prepared detailed plans ("the building plans") and the couple engaged a builder to undertake the construction. Sometime after the house was built, the couple listed and sold the property to a new owner.

Disappointed prospective purchasers commission builders to build identical house

Another couple who had hoped to buy the house but who had missed out were so impressed with its architecture and layout that they paid $1 million to the builders of the original house to build an identical house for them in the same estate in Port Douglas.

The new owner of the original house became aware of this and acquired the copyright to the building plans from the building designer who had created them, so as to ensure that his house would be the only house of its design in the area.

He put the building company and the couple who had commissioned the new house on notice that he held the copyright to the house plans and that he objected to the construction of a house identical to his.

Owner of original house sues for copyright infringement

The building company ignored this warning and constructed a house using the same building plans.

Shortly afterwards, the owner of the original house commenced legal action against the building company and the owners of the new house for infringement of copyright.

case a - The case for the new owner of the original house

case b - The case for the owners of the new house

  • While it is true that one of the original owners sent an email to the building designer setting out some rough ideas for the house they had in mind, the final building plans were significantly more detailed and amounted to an original artistic work.
  • The building designer who created them was the owner of the copyright in those plans and those rights were validly assigned to me.
  • My house was previously unique. The new house that has been constructed by the building company has substantially reproduced the building plans, infringing my copyright.
  • The court should order that modifications be made to the new house and that compensation be paid to me.
  • We deny any copyright infringement on two grounds.
  • First, the construction of the new house did not substantially reproduce the building plans. The new house was different in several respects and was not an exact replica.
  • Second, even if the court disagrees on the first point, we dispute that the building designer was the true author of the building plans. The email sent by the original owners contained detailed design specifications and the designer's building plans did not substantially depart from those specifications.
  • Accordingly, any copyright in the building plans is owned by the original owners and therefore the building designer could not validly assign those rights to the new owner, so the new owner has no standing to sue.
  • For all these reasons, there is no infringement of the new owner's copyright and the action must fail.

So, which case won?
Cast your judgment below to find out

Vote case A – the case for the new owner of the original house
Vote case B – the case for the owners of the new house

Rita Lahoud
Disputes and litigation
Stacks Champion

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