Trumped Again

Trumped Again

In a ruling with mixed messages for the architecture world, a federal court has rejected claims that Donald Trump and his partners stole the designs for two towers in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, an exclusive barrier island near Miami, from Czech-born architect Paul Oravec.

According to his complaint, Oravec was “shocked and dismayed” when in 2003 he discovered the Trump towers in a newspaper ad, looking like a copyrighted design he had circulated among Miami developers in 1997. Seeking $120 million in damages, Oravec sued the team behind the Trump Palace and the Trump Royale, twin 55-story luxury condominiums designed by Miami-based Sieger Suarez Architectural Partnership as part of an 11-acre, $700 million development.

“They stole it from me,” Oravec said in a brief telephone interview about the case. “We’re going to fight it.”

The Trump towers broadly resemble those drawn by Oravec, who trained as an architect in Czechoslovakia but is not licensed in the U.S. Both designs feature curved, vertically stacked segments of concave and convex forms. Both show three prominent elevator cores rising above the roofline. And both are twin-tower schemes with rounded building ends that enclose a circular plaza.

But on May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that differences far outweigh any similarity. Stressing that copyright does not extend to ideas—only to expressions of ideas—the judges noted that alternating segments, for example, appear on both sides of Oravec’s towers but only on one side of the Trump buildings. Oravec’s structures show five segments, while Trump’s have three. And Oravec’s towers are “banana-shaped” while Trump’s are more rectilinear.

“The building as a whole simply doesn’t look like the other work,” said Susan Raffanello, partner at Miami-based law firm Coffey Burlington, who represented the Trump team. “It didn’t have the flip-flop, convex-concave nature at all.”

Several copyright experts supported the decision. “This was a bit of a thin case to begin with,” said Mark Hellenkamp, a partner with San Diego–based Morris Polich & Purdy. “If they looked exactly the same, the court might have reached a different conclusion.”

Still, the case could be construed as crimping copyright protection, since it suggests that relatively subtle design differences can sink a plaintiff’s claim. And with few such cases at the appellate level, this one may have a lasting impact on future litigation. (Oravec’s attorneys declined to comment.)

“This case shows the unfortunate trend,” said Raffanello, citing the building boom of recent years, “of anybody being able to claim that they have copyright on the look of a building and sue the architect.”

Further raising the stakes, lawyers say, courts have affirmed an architect’s right to recover the profits a builder would have made—hence Oravec’s quest for $120 million. “We’re talking about huge dollars,” said Andres Quintana, partner with the Quintana Law Group in Los Angeles County. “That’s insane, if you think about it.” Architectural copyright, he added, remains among the least understood forms of intellectual property. “Architects don’t even get it,” he said. “It’s pretty treacherous sometimes.”