Sunday, October 16, 2016

Contractors Exposed to Copyright Liability Where Owner Breaches Agreement with Architect

A federal court in the case Eberhard Architects, LLC v. Bogart Architecture, Inc. et al., 314 F.R.D. 567 (N.D.Ohio 2016) recently held that contractors and subcontractors cannot, as a matter of law, avoid liability if an owner uses an architect's plans and drawings without a license.

In Eberhard, the Architect entered into an AIA contract with the Owner to provide architectural services in connection with the design of a 12-bed hospital facility.  Per the contract the Architect granted the Owner a "nonexclusive license" to use its plans and drawings, the "instruments of service," for the hospital project unless Owner failed to make payments.  In such instance, the contract stated that the license in favor of the Owner would be cancelled.

When the Owner failed to make payment to the Architect, the Architect issued cease and desist letters to all project participants - Owner, Contractor, Subcontractor - to stop using its instruments of service as they were protected by copyright law.  The Contractor and Subcontractors, who did not have a contractual relationship with the Architect and who did not have a basis in their contract with the Owner to stop work, continued to use the drawings and plans.  The Architect then filed a lawsuit against all project participants.  The Contractor and Subcontractors moved to dismiss. The federal court denied the motion.

The Contractor and Subcontractors first argued that case did not “arise” under the Copyright Act and was really a contract dispute concerning nonpayment of fees. The court disagreed holding that the complaint sounded in infringement by Contractor and Subcontractors and therefore arises under the Act. The court commented that it did not matter that the Defendants would raise an affirmative defense that they were not infringers in light of the nonexclusive license.

Then the court likewise discarded the arguments from the Contractor and Subcontractors that they did not exceed the scope of the license because the instruments of service were used on the exact project that the architect had intended.  According to the Contractor and Subcontractors, the Owner did not breach its agreement with the Architect (entitling the Architect to withdraw the license in full) because complete payment was not a condition precedent to the Owner-Architect Agreement.  The court pointed out that the Architect-Owner contract granted the license “upon execution” and "therefore, by granting the license before full payment was due, the parties clearly did not intend the full payment to be a condition precedent to the license itself." And furthermore, by agreement of the parties, the license indeed "ceased to exist" upon the architect's rightful termination of which non-payment was rightful reason. In sum, the Owner and Architect had agreed that the license  would be extinguished.Accordingly, by proceeding to use the instruments of service without a license all project participants, including the Contractor and Subcontractors, were potentially liable under the Copyright Act.

Beyond this case--where, in light of the cease and desist letters, the Contractors and Subcontractors arguably were aware that the license was potentially expired--it is important to note that civil violations of the Copyright Act need not be willful or knowing. See generally R. Anthony Reese, Innocent Infringement in US Copyright Law: A History, 30 Colum. J.L. & Arts 133 (2007).  As such, contractors and subcontractors who use plans and drawings that are unlicensed, whether they know so or not, may expose themselves to liability.
The author, Katharine Kohm, is a committee member for The Dispute Resolver. Katharine practices construction law and commercial litigation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She is an associate at Pierce Atwood, LLP in Providence, Rhode Island. She may be contacted at 401-490-3407 or

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