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Warren Freedenfeld Associates, Inc. v. McTigue, et al.

The First Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of an architect’s copyright infringement claim, finding that the architect did not have inquiry notice of the alleged infringement and that his claim was not barred by the statute of limitations. The First Circuit also affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the architect on the defendant’s counter-claim of copyright infringement.

The defendant is a veterinarian who hired the architect to design a veterinary hospital, but the parties terminated their relationship before completion of the building and the veterinarian hired another architect to finish the building. The original design agreement and the termination agreement indicated that the architect retained ownership of the copyright in the design.

The building was finished in 2000, but the architect did not learn of the similarities between his design and the finished building until 2004 when he read an article about the building and then obtained a copy of the building plans from the city. The defendant argued that a reasonably prudent person would have become aware of the alleged infringement when the plans for the building (as designed by the second architect) were filed with the city or when the building was completed and open for business.

The First Circuit disagreed. According to the court, a claim for copyright infringement accrues only when a plaintiff knows or has sufficient reason to know of the conduct upon which the claim is grounded. In the absence of actual knowledge, the question becomes when a reasonably prudent person in the plaintiff’s shoes would have discovered (i.e., would have acquired an awareness of) the putative infringement. “The reasonable person standard incorporates a duty of diligence. . . [but] typically, inquiry notice must be triggered by some event or series of events that comes to the attention of the aggrieved party.”

The district court concluded that the architect was on inquiry notice no later than the day that the veterinary hospital opened its doors to the public in 2000. The First Circuit explained that the “district court’s conclusion is plausible, but it is not compelled. A searching examination of the complaint and the documents annexed thereto reveals no facts, prior to Freedenfeld’s chance encounter with a trade publication in 2004, sufficient to mandate a conclusion that a reasonable person would have suspected that the copyrighted material had been used in an unauthorized manner. In the absence of some triggering event -- some sign of storm clouds gathering on the horizon -- WFA cannot be charged as a matter of law with inquiry notice.” Furthermore, the court stated that architects have no general, free-standing duty to comb through public records or to visit project sites in order to police their copyrights. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that his statement to the architect that he intended to complete the construction of the veterinary hospital with the help of another architect suggested that the plaintiff’s copyrighted plans and drawings would be used.

The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the architect on the defendant’s counter-claim of copyright infringement, rejecting the defendant’s argument that the building plans were a work made for hire or that the termination agreement somehow transferred ownership of part of the plans to the defendant. The court noted that the parties were not in an employer-employee relationship, and that there was no writing describing the building plans as a work made for hire.