On June 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit overturned a lower court's ruling that had dismissed a Boston architecture firm's copyright infringement suit on the basis of timeliness. And although Warren Freedenfeld Associates v. McTigue doesn't involve front-page names or iconic design, the decision is notable for its reading of the law.

By law, a copyright holder has three years from the date "the claim accrued" to sue for infringement. When it comes to architecture, this generally means the date an allegedly infringing building opens. In the particulars of the case, WFA was hired by a veterinarian in 1998 to design an animal hospital, but the relationship soured and the agreement was mutually terminated. The veterinarian hired another architect, and the hospital opened in 2000. WFA (now Rauhaus Freedenfeld & Associates) didn't file a copyright infringement suit until July 2005, eight months after seeing a floor plan of the facility, credited to the second architect, in an international veterinary medicine trade publication.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed WFA's lawsuit, saying the firm should have had reason to know about the illegal use of its designs no later than when the hospital opened in 2000, thus making its 2005 suit untimely. The appeals court, however, decided in favor of the firm, saying that WFA's infringement claim accrued when the firm actually discovered the illegal use of its plans. "Architects have no general, freestanding duty to comb through public records or to visit project sites in order to police their copyrights," wrote the court.

Jeffrey Brown, a Minneapolis-based patent attorney, says the court's action is probably a good one. "Using the standard of 'a reason to know' requires the copyright owner to aggressively police their work. With some things it makes more sense, such as books and movies?things that are more widely disseminated," he says. But because buildings are by and large single-edition items, "in the context of architectural copyright, it's kind of difficult" to be so vigilant. But Brown also notes that WFA v. McTigue is "just a decision of the facts that were before the court, and I think this case could have gone either way."