Homebuilder prevails in copyright suit that sought $3M

September 20, 2018

A federal judge has ruled against a company reputed as a “copyright troll” in its lawsuit against a Jasper luxury homebuilder. The suit had sought more than $3 million in damages and fees, alleging the homebuilder infringed the company’s copyrighted architectural floor plans.

Southern District of Indiana Judge Tanya Walton Pratt granted summary judgment Wednesday to Kerstiens Homes & Designs Inc., of Jasper, and affiliated entities that were sued by Design Basics, LLC, and its affiliates. 

Omaha-based Design Basics specializes in developing and licensing architectural designs, but at least one court has likened the company to a copyright troll, describing how its employees trawl the internet in search of similar home designs, filing multiple infringement lawsuits seeking damages. The company currently is party to more than 120 lawsuits in federal court.

Design Basics alleged Kerstiens had infringed its copyrights on seven home designs, but Pratt granted summary judgment to the Jasper homebuilder on all claims, stressing in her order the difficulties of proving an architectural copyright infringement claim.

“In light of the narrow window created by the Seventh Circuit’s case law to support an architectural works infringement claim, the Court concludes that the numerous differences among the Copyrighted Works and the Defendants’ house designs undermine the substantial similarity element of Plaintiffs’ copyright claim. These numerous differences are not subtle or trivial,” Pratt wrote, peppering her order with those differences.

Noting there were some similarities between home designs, Pratt cited a 2017 ruling in the 7th Circuit, Design Basics v. Lexington Homes, 858 F.3d, that affirmed a prior summary judgment ruling against Design Basics in another infringement suit. In that case, the panel wrote, “[the] accused plans resemble Design Basics’ plans, but only because both sets resemble common home designs one might observe throughout the suburbs of Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, or many other communities. There are only so many ways to arrange a few bedrooms, a kitchen, some common areas, and an attached garage, so not every nook and cranny of an architectural floor plan enjoys copyright protection.”

Pratt’s ruling could potentially expose Design Basics to paying the legal fees of the parties it sued. Attorneys representing Design Basics did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment about the ruling.

Attorney Paul Overhauser defended Kerstiens and was pleased with the ruling. He wrote in an email, “Judge Pratt noted that Design Basics has an inventory of more than 2,800 plans. With this many plans, most residential houses in the country would probably have a floor plan that happened to be similar to one of Design Basics’ plans. However, that does not mean that the floor plan was ‘copied’ from Design Basics.”

The case is Design Basics, LLC et al. v. Kerstiens Homes & Designs Inc., et al., 1:16-cv-00726.



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