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Heritage Homes, LLC v. Benjamin Custom Homes, LLC

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

October 7, 2019

Heritage Homes, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
Benjamin Custom Homes, LLC, a/k/a Benjamin Anderson Custom Homes, LLC, and Benjamin R. Anderson, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          PETER D. WELTE, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the Defendants' “Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim” filed on March 28, 2019. Doc. No. 16. The Defendants seek to dismiss the Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On April 18, 2019, the Plaintiff filed a response in opposition. Doc. No. 18. On May 2, 2019, the Defendants filed a reply brief. Doc. No. 19. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part the Defendants' motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's claims for statutory damages and attorney's fees under 17 U.S.C. § 505, as incorporated by 17 U.S.C. § 412, but denies the Defendants' motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's remaining claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual background, which the Court must accept as true for purposes of this motion, is taken from the Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint.[1] Doc. No. 15.

         This case arises out of a copyright dispute between the Plaintiff and the Defendants. Plaintiff Heritage Homes, LLC (“Heritage”) is a residential home builder and designer in Fargo, North Dakota. Doc. No. 15, p.1. Heritage is in the business of creating, publishing, developing, constructing, building, and selling architectural works and residential houses. Defendant Benjamin Custom Homes, LLC, and its member and owner Benjamin R. Anderson (together, the “Defendants”), is also a Fargo, North Dakota residential home builder and designer.

         In or around April 2009, Heritage entered into a “works made for hire” contract with Design Basics, LLC (“DB”), where DB agreed to create several architectural works for the Plaintiff. Id., p.3. Heritage and DB agreed that all architectural works created, prepared, or made by DB would be the property of Heritage and that Heritage would retain all right, title, and interest to the architectural works and all derivative works created therein, including all copyrights. Id. As a part of the “work made for hire” agreement, DB created for Heritage the architectural work entitled the Georgetown (the “Georgetown”). Id. In designing the Georgetown for Heritage, DB drew inspiration from an original copyright-protected architectural work entitled Moss Bluff (“Moss Bluff”), which was created and owned by DB. Id., n2.

         Heritage is the sole owner of all right, title, and interest to the Georgetown and owns the Deposit Materials and Certificate of Copyright Registration issued by the United States Copyright Office for the Georgetown. Id., p.3; Doc. No. 15-2. Heritage also created a derivative work of the Georgetown, entitled the “Georgetown 3 - Garage Left” (the “Georgetown 3”), and Heritage owns the Deposit Materials and Certificate of Copyright Registration issued by the United States Copyright Office for the Georgetown 3. Id., pp.3-4; Doc. No. 15-3.

         In the First Amended Complaint, Heritage alleges the Defendants unlawfully infringed on Heritage's copyright-protected Georgetown 3, in violation of 17 U.S.C. §§ 106(2) and 501, after discovering the Defendants had access to the Georgetown and Georgetown 3 home designs from one of Heritage's former clients. Doc. No. 15. After Heritage's former client terminated a new construction agreement with Heritage, that same former client worked with the Defendants to build a custom home, which Heritage alleges is substantially similar to the Georgetown 3. Id. Heritage further alleges that Defendants copied the Georgetown 3 design and used the infringing plans to design and build a custom home for Heritage's former client. Id. Heritage attached the allegedly infringing plans to the First Amended Complaint. Doc. No. 15-8. Additionally, Heritage alleges the Defendants unlawfully copied and infringed on the Georgetown 3 by using the copied plans to design and build another similar home in West Fargo, North Dakota. Doc. No. 15, p.8; Doc. No. 15-9. Heritage seeks statutory damages and attorney's fees under 17 U.S.C. § 505, as incorporated by 17 U.S.C. § 412, as well as statutory damages under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), 17 U.S.C. § 1202, et seq. Doc. No. 15, p.15.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a pleading to contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In turn, Federal Rule 12(b)(6) mandates the dismissal of a claim if the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009). A complaint is facially plausible where its factual content “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the question is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the complaint is “sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 530 (2011). While Twombly's plausibility standard is not a “probability requirement, ” “it asks for more than a sheer possibility that the defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); see also Wilson v. Ark. Dept. of Human Servs., 850 F.3d 368, 371 (8th Cir. 2017). A court must “review the plausibility of the plaintiff's claim as a whole, not the plausibility of each individual allegation.” Whitney v. Guys, Inc., 700 F.3d 1118, 1128 (8th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see also In re SuperValu, Inc., 925 F.3d 955, 962 (8th Cir. 2019).

         III. LEGAL DISCUSSION

         The Defendants make two primary arguments in their motion to dismiss. First, the Defendants argue the First Amended Complaint fails to state viable claims for copyright infringement because the Georgetown 3 is a derivative work, which is entitled to limited copyright infringement protection, and that Heritage has failed to identify any original, protectable elements of the Georgetown and Georgetown 3. The Defendants further argue that Heritage's Georgetown architectural work is also not original, stating the Georgetown, which is the architectural work from which the Georgetown 3 is derived, is itself a derivative work of DB's copyright-protected Moss Bluff architectural work. Second, the Defendants contend Heritage's demand for statutory damages and attorney's fees under 17 U.S.C. §§ 412, 504, and 505 should be dismissed with prejudice because Heritage is precluded from recovering such damages under the Copyright Act.

         A. Failure ...


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