Architects, designers and others will be interested in the recent case Coles v Dormer and Ors [2015] QSC 224 where the Judge ordered modifications to the roof, visible exterior windows and stone edge trim of a newly built house because of copying by the builder and the builder’s client of the claimant’s house in Port Douglas, Queensland.

The background was that the claimant had purchased the home from the original owners who had come up with ideas and engaged an architect/building designer to implement them. The architect spent more than 100 hours coming up with detailed plans and modifying the plans to comply with engineering advice.

When the claimant bought the house, having fallen in love with it, the under bidders (who also loved the design) asked the original builders to build them a similar house around the corner on a block of land in the same gated community in Port Douglas (only a few streets away from the original house).

When he heard this, the claimant approached the architect and obtained for a modest fee an assignment of the copyright in the plans. Having bought the house, the claimant wanted to be the only one to have a house of that design. He warned the under bidders and builder defendants not to proceed. At first, they indicated they would show him the plans to ensure his concerns were accommodated but ended up not doing so. Despite reminders and lawyers’ letters they pressed on regardless and the new house had been completed by the time the legal case came to trial. The claimant could see the new house from his home.

The defendants contested all issues including whether there was copyright in the plans and whether the role of the original owners meant that they were co-owners of copyright along with the architect. This argument was rejected with the court finding that the architect’s extensive work was not just a copy of the client’s ideas but gave him an independent copyright (albeit that the owners might have had their own copyright in their description of their rough ideas). The court found that the new house was closely similar to the design of the claimant’s home and therefore the 3D building was an infringement of the 2D plans, as provided for by the Copyright Act.

The court determined that, while it might appear harsh to the builders and the owners of the second house, they had chosen to press on and build the house after being warned of the consequences, indeed well knowing court action was afoot.

The claimant had established his case and had moved reasonably quickly in pursuing the claim. He was entitled to be put in the position he would have been in if there had been no infringement. While that did not require demolition of the new home, the court ordered the defendants to promptly make sufficient changes to the distinctive exterior. 

The case is interesting because, while in one sense merely a conventional application of well understood copyright law, it confirms:

  • on facts which were quite typical in that rough ideas from the client were the subject of extensive and detailed work by the professional, the professional was an owner of an independent copyright in the detailed plans; and
  • the significant value of copyright in architects’ plans in delivering a powerful remedy of mandatory alterations of a newly built house, to remove distinctive architectural features.