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In order to make out a claim of copyright infringement for an architectural work, or any work, a plaintiff must establish three things: (1) that his work is protected by a valid copyright, (2) that the defendant copied his work, and (3) that the copying was wrongful. The second and third elements, copying and wrongful copying, are often confused. This confusion is understandable; in many cases any copying of a work is wrongful, and thus there is often no need to draw the distinction. Nonetheless, the distinction can be important. Not every portion or aspect of a copyrighted work is given copyright law's protection. Copying these aspects of a work is not wrongful, and thus not all copying is wrongful.
Plaintiff James Zalewski was self-employed as an architect doing business through the firm Draftics, Ltd. Zalewski asserted that he created and then licensed numerous designs for colonial homes to two construction companies. He alleged that these companies and their contractors infringed his copyright in these designs by using them in ways the licenses did not permit and after the licenses had expired. Zalewski also asserted that defendants’ actions violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA"). Defendants principally contended that their designs did not copy the protected elements of plaintiff’s designs. The district court dismissed portions of plaintiff’s complaint and granted summary judgment to defendants on the remaining claims. The district court also granted defendants’ motion for attorney’s fees. Plaintiff challenged the decision.
The court held that the district court properly dismissed plaintiff's copyright infringement claim under 17 U.S.C.S. §§ 101, 102 because any copying of plaintiff's architectural designs extended only to unprotected elements of his works; defendants' houses shared plaintiff's general style, but took nothing from his original expression. The court further held that the district court properly dismissed plaintiff's Digital Millennium Copyright Act claim under 17 U.S.C.S. § 1202(b) because it had no support in the record and was never adequately alleged. However, the court held that the district court erred in its award of attorney's fees to defendant under 17 U.S.C.S. § 505 because an award of attorney's fees to defendants against whom the district court found plaintiff's claims to be reasonable was poorly matched to the deficiencies identified by the district court.