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Building Graphics v. Lennar Corp., No. 11-2200

Decided:  February 26, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of Defendants, Lennar Corporation, Lennar Carolinas, LLC, and Drafting & Design, Inc., concluding that the Plaintiff, Building Graphics, Inc., lacked sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of copyright infringement.

Plaintiff alleged that Defendants infringed on three home plans that Plaintiff created and obtained copyrights for, and Plaintiff sought damages and injunctive relief against Defendants.  Defendants subsequently filed motions for summary judgment, which the district court granted after “concluding there was insufficient evidence on critical elements of [Plaintiff’s] infringement claim.”  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision de novo and stated that in order “‘[t]o establish a claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove that it owned a valid copyright and that the defendant copied the original elements of that copyright.’”  (citation omitted).  Because the Court found that it was clear that Plaintiff held valid copyrights to the three plans at issue, it determined the question on appeal to be “whether Lennar copied Building Graphics’ house plans.”  After noting that “[c]opying can be proved through direct or circumstantial evidence” and that direct evidence in copyright infringement claims is often hard to establish, the court focused on whether the Plaintiff had successfully relied on circumstantial evidence in its infringement claim.

To establish a copyright claim based on circumstantial evidence, the Court found that Plaintiff needed to satisfy two elements: (1) “that it is reasonably possible that Lennar had access to the Building Graphics plans,” and (2) “‘that the defendant’s work is ‘substantially similar’ to the protected material.’”  (citation omitted).  In order to satisfy the first element, the Court stated that Plaintiff must “demonstrat[e] that the infringer had an opportunity to view or to copy the protected material” and “must establish more than a ‘mere possibility that such an opportunity could have arisen” such that it is “‘reasonably possible that the paths of the infringer and the infringed work crossed.’”  (citation omitted).  After reviewing precedent cases, the Court concluded that Plaintiff “has not shown a chain of events or wide dissemination sufficient to show a reasonable possibility that Lennar had access to [its] plans.”  It found that the facts and circumstances of the case “amount[ed] to inferences built upon inferences” which “do not give rise to more than a mere possibility of access.”  Thus, the Court held that the Plaintiff had failed to establish the first element required to substantiate its copyright claim, and it affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite