The Federal Court recently dismissed a copyright infringement claim on the basis that it had not been established that direct or indirect copying of another's project home design had occurred. The case reveals the key to a successful defence to copyright infringement lay in providing documents showing the evolution of an idea and an independent creation process.
The case, Inform Design and Construction Pty Ltd v Boutique Homes Melbourne Pty Ltd  FCA 912, follows on from a series of recent cases focusing on copyright infringement in the project home industry. However, unlike the previous cases where various claimants had been successful in relation to their copyright infringement claims, the defendant in the recent Inform case was able to provide a detailed trail of drafts showing the development of their project plans. In doing so, the defendant was able to thwart the allegation of copying the plans of its competitor.
Inform Design and Construction Pty Ltd (Inform) was a well-known designer and builder of high quality project homes in Victoria that targeted the upper end of the housing market. In 1998, Inform commenced designing a two-storey project home known as the Core. This early model was progressively adapted and developed into project homes known as the Urban and the Seasons which were opened in 2002 and 2003 respectively. According to the architect of these project homes, Mr Leon Meyer, the Core, the Urban and the Seasons shared certain conceptual characteristics which included:
- A modern plan layout along a rectangular spine.
- A central freestanding staircase.
- The ground-level service areas such as the kitchen, bathrooms
and laundry, known as the 'wet areas', which were all
grouped around the staircase.
- The bedroom and living spaces were located upstairs, with the
upstairs bathrooms being clustered near the staircase.
The project homes were highly successful and received industry recognition winning several Housing Industry Association awards in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Consequently, Inform's project homes received considerable publicity through newspapers and magazines.
Boutique Homes Melbourne Pty Ltd (Boutique) created three different sizes of a project home called Villa View during 2003 and 2004. Boutique maintained that the Villa View was a clear evolution of one of their earlier creations in early 2001 called the Mawson Lakes house plan.
Inform alleged that Boutique, through its design of Villa View 4300 in particular, had substantially reproduced the Urban and Seasons designs. Boutique submitted that the Villa View 4300 was independently conceived and designed without recourse to any of Inform's designs.
The three primary issues considered in this case by Justice Weinberg included:
- Had Boutique made use of any of Inform's designs or
buildings to create the Villa View?
- If Boutique had made use of Inform's designs or buildings,
had it reproduced a substantial part of the Urban and Seasons
- If Boutique had reproduced a substantial part of Inform's
designs and buildings, is that part of the design which Inform is
seeking to protect, subject to copyright protection?
Inform had the onus of proving that an objective similarity existed between their designs and those of Boutique. Also Inform needed to establish that this similarity was a result of the conscious or subconscious copying by Boutique designers. His Honour found that Inform had not proven either of these requirements. It was held that the documentation provided as evidence by Boutique clearly demonstrated the development and evolution of the Villa View. At the trial, Boutique had submitted a detailed documentary trail which included transparencies and each stage of the development process. The documents were also complimented by commentary from the designer explaining the development process. This evidence led his Honour to the conclusion that it was easy to see how the Mawsons Lakes design was transformed into the Villa View.
In addition, Justice Weinberg was not convinced of the list of similarities between the Urban and Seasons designs and the Villa View. It was found that once a designer decides to place a staircase in a central position, it makes good sense for the wet areas to surround it. According to his Honour, the concept of a central staircase surrounded by wet areas was not particularly novel or original and had been employed in commercial buildings for a long time. There was no reason to suggest that a designer could not independently arrive at the idea for a centralised staircase.
The case reiterates that a breach of copyright claim can successfully be defended through a detailed documentation trail of drafts and plans. If designers retain their drafts throughout the development process, including evidence of variations, they will assist in defending a copyright infringement claim and illustrate the independent creation process that was undertaken by the designer.
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