On August 16, 2021, the Eighth Circuit court of appeals issued an opinion holding that floor plans do not constitute “pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictoral representations” of an architectural work under 17 U.S.C. §120(a). Currently, the Supreme Court is reviewing a petition for a write certiorari, filed on March 4, 2022. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether it would grant the petition.
The case presents an interesting statutory interpretation question, coupled with a real estate question. The facts of the case are relatively straightforward. The Plaintiff, Charles James, was an architect who built homes with a unique stair design. Two owners of homes that James designed hired real estate agents to list their homes for sale. The agents both created floorplans of these houses, one agent hired a contractor to create designs on the computer, and the other agent simply measured the different rooms and created a sketch on graph paper. The agents then displayed these floorplans for buyers to see. Upon seeing these designs, the plaintiff sued the agents for copyright infringement. The agents filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that they could not be liable for copyright infringement because 17 U.S.C. §120(a) protected them from liability for infringing on the copyright.
The Eighth Circuit went through at extensive statutory interpretation analysis, explaining that the statutory framework demonstrates that congress did not include floorplans in 120(a) defenses to copyright infringement. In reading the court’s analysis carefully, there are a few important takeaways from this case.
First, the court reiterates that statutory interpretation begins with the text itself. This is important when determining how to frame a statutory interpretation argument. The opinion began with the text, and any additional information explained the text. The court was unmoved by policy considerations or undesirable outcomes that could result from the court’s holding. This is important because it highlights that courts applying textualist approaches to statutory interpretation will only look at the text. As the court pithily states “[t]o the extent amicus argues that the benefits of a broader statute would reduce or eliminate certain costs, it should direct its argument to the political branches.”
Second, the opinion provides a helpful analysis of statutes present in larger frameworks. Although the court declined to accept §120(a) and associated sections as a defense to copyright infringement, the court stated that there were additional defenses available to the defendants. The court essentially argued that the defendants failed to raise the appropriate defense. The court implied that appellate courts will not modify statutory interpretation principles to reach reasonable outcomes. Instead, it is the duty of plaintiffs and defendants to raise the appropriate arguments. The court discussed the possibility of a fair use defense to copyright infringement, and invited the district court to analyze the possibility of this defense.
Lastly, this case highlighted the difference between appellate courts and district (or, at the state level, trial) courts, and also highlighted the purpose of remand. The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and declined to consider any additional arguments in favor of the defendants. Instead, it remanded the matter to the district court for additional proceedings. In the opinion, the Eighth Circuit suggested that the defendants raise additional arguments in support of their position. While this is a relatively obvious point, it is nonetheless important for attorneys to remember to raise all possible defenses at the district or trial court level.
The case is available to read here.