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Brookwood Homebuilding and Remodeling, LLC v. Landis Reed Homes, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

July 21, 2017




         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgement (Doc. No. 12), Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 16), and Defendant's Reply to the Response to the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 18). The parties' motions are ripe for disposition.

         I. Background

         This case involves a copyright infringement dispute between two parties. Plaintiff is a residential homebuilding company, which has a sole member and manager, Randall Nassar, that engaged in licensing negotiations for the Caswell architecture designs with the Defendant, another homebuilding company, which ultimately fell through. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant proceeded to construct homes using the Caswell design under a new name, New Castle.

         In either 2005 or 2006 Nassar hand drew sketches for a house on graph paper. These sketches included floor plans, all of the rooms, front elevations, and where doors and windows would go. Brookwood Dep. 28:5-13. The sketches were not kept but they are estimated to have been around 3-4 pages.

         The sketches were used by Drafting & Design (“D&D”) employees Jay Bodner, Jimmy Levin, and Craig Jones to create the Caswell plans using AutoCAD® software. Mr. Bodner testified that the creative decisions were made by Mr. Nassar. D&D Dep 55:17-19. However, the graph paper sketch did not include details such as roof shingles, or porch railings. Id. 27:9-24. Mr. Bodner also testified that it was not his understanding that he had rights to the Caswell Plan and he believes the author of the Caswell Plans to be Mr. Nassar. Id. 36:8-24, 55:10-56:9. However, Mr. Nassar does not know who to use AutoCAD® software and so did not participate in actually using the software to create the Caswell plan.

         On June 12, 2015, Brookwood filed an application to register the copyrights in the Caswell Plans. The copyright application for the Caswell design did not include the sketches drawn by Mr. Nassar. Brookwood Dep. 27:22-25. The copyright application only included the Caswell Plans created by Bodnar, Levin, and Jones using the AutoCAD® software and did not identify this Plan as being derivative of any work, including Mr. Nassar's sketches. The copyright application identifies Nassar as the author of the Caswell Plans and Brookwood as the owner of the copyrights by virtue of a written agreement. Nassar claims to have created a handwritten assignment in 2010 that assigned his copyrights in the Caswell Plans to Brookwood. However, no one can find the 2010 hand-written assignment.

         Defendant has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant argues that Mr. Nassar has no ownership interest in the Caswell design because he is not the author of the copyrighted work and therefore Plaintiff lacks standing to pursue a claim for infringement of the asserted copyright. Plaintiff responds that (1) Nassar is the author of the Caswell Plans, (2) if Nassar is not the sole author he is at minimum a co-author of the Plans, and (3) even if D&D is the sole author of the Plans, D&D assigned any rights it did have in the Plans to Brookwood and so Plaintiff would still have standing in this scenario.

         II. Legal Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in support of the non-movant's position is not sufficient to establish a genuine dispute. Id. at 252. A material fact affects the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. See Id. at 248. When determining whether a dispute is genuine or a fact is material, courts are required to view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the summary judgment motion. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). Unsupported speculation, however, is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 960 (4th Cir. 1996).

         III. Discussion

         Copyright protection covers “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C. § 102. To establish a prima facie case of copyright infringement, a plaintiff must demonstrate that “first he owned the copyright to the work that was allegedly copied and second, that the defendant copied protected elements of the work.” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens, Inc., 241 F.3d 350, 353 (4th Cir.2001); see also Billco Intern., Inc. v. Charles Products, Inc., 776 F.Supp.2d 105, 112 (D.M.D. 2011).

         Defendants contend that summary judgment is appropriate because the evidence shows that Nassar does not own the copyright and in fact shows that D&D owns the copyright to the Caswell Plans. The Court's analysis begins with the Plaintiff having a certificate of registration, which is “prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate, ” such as ownership. 17 U.S.C. § 410(c).

         However, the Defendant posits that statutory presumption of validity does not apply in this case because the copyrighted work was not registered “within five years after first publication of the work” as required by the statute. 17 U.S.C. § 410(c). The Asserted Copyright Registration identifies July 10, 2006, as the date of first publication of the copyrighted work. Brookwood did not file the application that resulted in the Asserted Copyright Registration until June 12, 2015. The Plaintiff does not refute these dates in its response. Since the copyrighted work was not registered within five ...

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