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Architect Accused of Copying Mansion Design

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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A federal lawsuit accuses a New Jersey architecture firm and New York couple of accessing copyrighted drawings of a New York mansion and planning a replica close by—without the original homeowners’ permission.

Rivka and Seth Fortgang, of Lawrence, have accused Pereiras Architects Ubiquitous (PAU) and property owners Daniella and Ari Schwartz of copying the Fortgangs’ dream house, in nearby Cedarhurst, according to the copyright infringement case, filed in Long Island federal court in early July.

Copying a Unique Home

The Fortgangs constructed their 4,400-square-foot custom house 11 years ago in the area known as “Five Towns.” Designed by Rivka, an interior and exterior designer, the mansion features “a visually distinctive and unique exterior stucco facade,” according to the complaint.

The original architectural drawings for the home were copyrighted in 2005, the suit says.

The suit alleges that the Schwartzes and PAU are currently designing and constructing a residence that infringes upon that copyright.

In August 2015, the firm and the Schwartzes allegedly accessed the Fortgang residence architectural drawings via records filed with the Village of Lawrence Building Department, the suit claims. Permission to access or copy, reproduce, or distribute derivative works of Fortgang residence was never granted, the complaint alleges.

However, the suit contends project renderings of the Schwartz home indicate it will be “substantially similar” to the Fortgang home. The project is still in the early stages of construction and its facade is not yet complete, the suit claims.

Exchange Before Filing

Before heading to court, the Fortgangs, through their attorney, sent a cease-and-desist letter.

“There is no doubt that you have accessed and intentionally copied the plans of the Fortgang residence intending to create a replica of our clients’ home and distinctive exterior,” Attorney Steven Stern wrote in the letter dated June 7.

The Schwartzes and PAU responded, through their attorney, stating "our clients have agreed to temporarily postpone construction of the present design of the so-called ‘Villa residence’ pending certain changes and amendments to its exterior facade elements,” the complaint notes.

However, the color renderings provided at the end of June by the Schwartzes indicated “intent to continue with infringing behavior,” the suit says. Thus, the suit was filed.

Reputation Suffers

Rivka, who works as a designer in the Five Towns area, said her business and reputation has suffered in light of the controversy.

The couple seeks an injunction and unspecified damages in the copyright infringement suit.

PAU did not immediately respond to a D+D News request for comment.


Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Color + Design; Construction; Documentation; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; North America; Residential

Comment from Mark Anater, (7/19/2016, 8:05 AM)

How enforceable is a copyright on an architectural design? What constitutes infringement? Must it be an exact copy, or can some variation still not protect the defendant? The design on the right in this illustration is not exactly the same, since the wing on the right is wider, windows are larger, the dormers are spaced further apart and there are four rather than three. That wasn't enough to avoid a lawsuit, but will a judge side with the plaintiffs? My instinct is that the plaintiffs will lose, but I'm not a lawyer.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/19/2016, 8:22 AM)

Mark, Since the plaintiffs apparently have proof the defendants accessed the design, it's pretty obvious it would have been easy to do a little cut & paste to end up with the design on the right. But ultimately sitting here we won't get enough information to know for sure. That's what the Jury gets to hear, probably sitting for at least a week listening to minutiae being squabbled over.

Comment from Jesse Melton, (7/20/2016, 7:58 AM)

There are more differences between these houses than you'll find in most new constructions of similar sizes. The house looks like a zillion other quasi-Craftsman but completely without a soul style homes and developments going up all over the Mid-Atlantic region. Regardless, it is entirely acceptable to use copyrighted works as a reference or inspiration. That's how styles develop. Very, very, very few architects have ever designed anything entirely original. They take existing elements and pair them with other existing elements and hope the window trim/roofline/corbels etc... are arranged differently enough that people notice. They usually don't.

Comment from Jesse Melton, (7/20/2016, 8:07 AM)

Does anyone know if the drawings on file are on paper or are digital? If they're digital and access is controlled then accessing the files without authorization is a serious felonious act and is under the jurisdiction of the FBI. The FBI will joyfully investigate any unauthorized access complaint, so where is the FBI in this case?

Comment from john schultz, (7/21/2016, 8:49 AM)

Another frivolous lawsuit. A news item not so long ago reported a neighborhood busybody complaining a new house doesn't look "like the neighborhood" and these folks complain they look too much the same.

Comment from Sarah Geary, (7/21/2016, 4:52 PM)

I'm sure that jury wants to hear about this... (sarcasm). Just because your house is "custom" doesn't mean that no one else can have something similar; it means they didn't use a generic blueprint from an architectural firm. How much did they stray from the original blueprint? Couldn't another couple have chosen a similar blueprint and "customized" their home as well? I'm confused as to how this is an issue. If I saw either of these houses, I'd think they were boring, predictable and lack-luster.

Comment from B Pittman, (7/22/2016, 8:37 AM)

To me, there are enough differences in appearance to not be offensive to the "original design". But isn't there some quote about "Imitation is the best form of flattery"? It's not like it is right next door???

Comment from M. Halliwell, (7/22/2016, 11:25 AM)

If the plaintiffs paid for a custom design of their own and the defendants accessed the files and, though slightly modified, are using it for their own, I can see why the lawsuit was launched. After all, it's not like this is row housing in a sub-division development where the houses are cookie cutter copies of 3-4 designs. That said, I'd think this will never see a jury. The defendants will modify the finishes a bit, tweak the exterior and pay some sum of money to the plaintiffs as part of an out-of-court settlement and this will all go away.

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