Architect Alan Freysinger was far from pleased when a design review board in Whitefish Bay, Wis., raved about his plans for an extensive home remodel in the wealthy Milwaukee suburb. That's because the homeowner — Freysinger's ex-client — was passing off Freysinger's work as his own. “I was in the back of the room steaming about how much money our firm had effectively lost,” says Freysinger, co-owner of Design Group Three in Glendale, Wis.
Eric Meyers of Meyers-Bradick Associates in Memphis designed a project for one of his wife's clients. “I've always done business with a handshake, and when someone says, ‘If you do the design work, we'll use you to build it,' I expected that to happen.” The client told him the project was on hold. Two weeks later, Meyers drove by the site to see his work being built by someone else.
Such incidents are all too common, and many high-end remodelers have seen their plans built by others. Intellectual property is among the easiest property to steal. Computer files are simple to copy and difficult to control. And friendly building departments that let people see and copy plans don't help.
Whether they are architects, builders, or remodelers, those who design structures own the copyright to their plans and could, if they chose to, pursue those who infringe upon them in court. And a little-known addition to the law makes pursuit more tempting.
Prior to the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, only original drawings and plans for buildings were protected. The act extended protection to architectural works built from the plans. This means copyright owners can go after infringers not just for violating the copyright of the plans, but also for the profits on buildings created from them.
JEWEL HEIST In many cases, the prospect of expensive legal battles prevents remodelers from taking copyright infringement on their designs to court. But, as the stakes rise, so does the incentive to sue.
William Hablinski, founding partner of Hablinski + Manion Architecture in Los Angeles, designed a $20 million, “jewel box” home in Bel-Air, Calif., for real-estate mogul Fred Sands. In 2003, Hablinksi's employees noticed an almost identical house under construction in Beverly Hills. Hablinski investigated and discovered that his former draftsman was involved.
Hablinski, who said he spent 3,800 hours designing the Sands' home, filed a suit in 2005 against the builders (who were also the owners) for copyright and trademark infringement, among other complaints. His legal team also turned up more evidence of pilfered plans.
In 2006, a jury in Los Angeles awarded Hablinski $5.9 million — $380,000 in design fees, $500,000 for damage to his reputation, and about $5 million in estimated profits on the house. The defendants threatened to appeal.
“This will take years to resolve,” Hablinski predicts. In the meantime, he has changed his business practices to discourage theft by adding software programs, training staff about protecting plans, limiting office access after hours, and even moving his firm to a more secure setting.
“If someone can break into your computer and download a lifetime's worth of work, it pays to protect yourself,” Hablinski says.