A Tale of Two Towers: Copyright Protection for Architectural Works
Freedom Tower, the much publicized reconstruction project at the World Trade Center in New York, has seen a lot of ups and downs since it was unveiled to the public in 2003. It has survived a heated contest among several prestigious architectural firms, allegations of political corruption on the part of the NY governor in allegedly influencing the outcome of the contest, public criticism as to the proper use of the site as a fitting memorial, and security concerns over the building layout. But even as the first bricks of the foundation are laid for the new building, the original Freedom Tower design is battling yet another dispute- this one in the courts.
The case is Shine v. Childs, pending in the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff, a young architect, has alleged that the winning Freedom Tower design infringed on certain designs that he created while attending the Yale School of Architecture. Recently, the court denied the defendant's summary judgment motion in the case and, by all accounts, the parties appear to be heading toward trial this fall. The case offers a rare judicial guidance on the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act ("AWCPA") and how to apply the Act to copyright disputes involving architectural designs.
The court made several key observations in construing the AWCPA. For instance, the court held that copyright protection may potentially extend to designs and models that fall within the conceptual phase of the architectural process. The design need not be sufficiently detailed to allow a building to be constructed from such plans to be eligible for copyright protection. The court also determined that an architectural work can be "original" and protectable even if certain underlying elements were used in prior works. As long as the particular combination of design elements are original, the work itself can meet the Copyright Act's "originality" requirement to be protectable by copyright. These, and other observations, make the case very important to architectural firms and architects alike in assessing how to protect their valuable intellectual property from infringement, and how to ensure that they themselves do not infringe the works of others.