So You Admire Your Neighbour’s House? Best Not to Copy the Design

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From Hugh Stephens Blog:

If you have always admired or even envied your neighbour’s house—those special features like the gabling, the placement and colour of the windows and window frames, the design of the chimney, and so on–and are tempted to hire an architect to copy it, perhaps you should think again. That’s the lesson that has emerged from what we could call the “Strathearn design case” in Toronto. (named after the street on which the home with the copyrighted design was located).

According to an article in the Toronto Star, which reported (or perhaps misreported) the case, a couple (Jason and Jodi Chapnick) who were renovating their circa 1930s home contracted with a noted architect, Gordon Ridgely, (who passed away in 2013), to design their renovation. According to the Chapnicks, in order to protect the design of their home, and Ridgely’s legacy, the copyright on the original design of the home and on Ridgely’s modifications was assigned to them. Imagine then their dismay when they learned that a newly renovated home nearby bore a striking resemblance to their own home. It explained why tradesmen from the second home had been appearing on their property to take photos of their own ongoing renovation. The second home was being renovated for resale by a person who undertook such projects, assisted by her construction-company-owning husband and architect brother-in-law. The Chapnick’s through their lawyer issued a demand to cease infringing, the defendants refused, and the case ended up in court.

The defendants claim they were inspired by Tudor-style cottages and baronial castles in Scotland but not the Chapnick’s house. As you can see from the photos, there are some strong similarities between the outside design of both homes. That in itself is not unusual. Look at the cookie-cutter homes that spring up the suburbs of any major city. The big difference though is that these suburban designs are usually by the same architect, if the housing is constructed by a common builder, or else they are so generic as to be indistinguishable one from another.

It is uncommon for a house design dispute to end up in court. You have to have an aggrieved party that is so offended or annoyed by what it perceives to be a copycat of an original design (in other words a copyright infringement) that they are prepared to resort to litigation. Normally this is done by one architectural firm concerned that its work and designs are being unfairly copied by a competing firm. It is rare for a homeowner to own the copyright.

. . . .

In the case of the Strathearn home, we don’t know whether the design of the second house constituted copyright infringement because the case was settled out of court. However, according to news reports, the defendants agreed that the Chapnick’s own the copyright on the design of their home and accepted a permanent injunction preventing breach of the copyright. It would seem that the original demand for financial damages and a change in design of the second house was not part of the settlement but that is speculation as the terms were confidential.

. . . .

In September of 2017, the Federal Court of Canada awarded $700,000 in damages to Lainco, Inc., a company specializing in the design and construction of indoor steel structures, such as those housing indoor soccer fields or tennis courts. Lainco claimed that its design, achieved through a process of rigorous testing and trial and error, had been infringed by the defendants, the Commission Scolaire Des Bois-Francs et al (Bois-Franc School Board plus an engineering firm, architectural firm and building contractor). The defence was that the design was utilitarian and not “original”. It was not disputed that the defendants had access to Lainco’s original structure and had taken photographs of it prior to proceeding with building their own structure. While trusses and beams are part and parcel of all buildings of this type, a unique or original combination of the trusses and beams incorporated into a design can clearly be given copyright protection.

Link to the rest at Hugh Stephens Blog

There are more photos and detail in a Toronto Star article on the litigation.

None of the photos show either house in its entirety, but PG has seen details in the photos of each house at least hundreds of times before in a wide variety of other structures in the US and the UK.


5 thoughts on “So You Admire Your Neighbour’s House? Best Not to Copy the Design”

  1. There are streets of similar houses everywhere. These people are insane. It is the same as copyrighting the word ‘cocky’. People just want money and come up with crazy ways to get them.

    • Not necessarily.
      It is a “trade dress” lawsuit. Those are very real for lots of products and while, normally architects retain the copyright on their product, in this case the rights were assigned to the owners.

      Unless the modifications made were trivial and unless canadian trade dress law is very different from the US or UK, they had a valid case.

      Generally, cookie-cutter house designs are built by the same developer who is either the owner of the design IP or licensed it enmasse.

      “Trade dress is a legal term of art that generally refers to characteristics of the visual appearance of a product or its packaging (or even the design of a building) that signify the source of the product to consumers.[1] Trade dress is a form of intellectual property. ”

      One example relevant to visitors of this site: cover design for a series. If the covers of a book series are designed around a common set of elements (colors, font families, font sizes, banners, and layout of graphic elements) the entire assembly can be trademarked for use in its specific market. A lawsuit for intentionally confusing consumers would have a high likelihood of succeeding.

      It is something that authors looking to build a unifying brand design can consider.

  2. Like story telling, there can be lots of similar plots and story lines, but outright copying is frowned on …

    Like some of the cookie-cutter neighborhoods you see in the US where every third/fifth house has the same floor-plan, but at least they changed up the trim a bit to help keep them from looking exactly the same.

    Maybe if they hadn’t sent people to get pics/measurements it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. (No doubt they saved money not having to work things out as the first one had spend the money on the design. Like if someone were to take someone else’s book and change the names and then sell it as their own work.)

  3. DH and I put a bid on a house we loved last year. Another buyer outbid us, but the design was perfect for two people who work from home. I tracked down the current owner of the design copyright, and we have a deal. No need for stealing.

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