Childs denies Freedom Tower design was copied

In court documents filed late last week, David Childs ’63 ARC ’67 and his architectural firm denied allegations that they copied the designs of Thomas Shine ARC ’00 for a skyscraper planned for the World Trade Center site, answering a lawsuit Shine filed in November.

After receiving extensions, Childs and his firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, denied Shine’s claims that their Freedom Tower was copied illegally and is “strikingly similar” to two models Shine created as a graduate student at the Yale School of Architecture, according to their response filed last Friday in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.

Childs did admit to having seen “certain designs allegedly prepared by Shine” when Childs served on a panel of jurists invited to evaluate students’ architectural work for a studio class at Yale in 1999. Childs also admitted that he commented on Shine’s studio presentation and invited Shine to visit his firm, an admission which Shine’s attorney, Andrew Baum, said was particularly revealing.

“I think that’s an interesting concession of something we know to be true, which is Mr. Childs did see Mr. Shine’s presentation in ’99,” Baum said. “That certainly resolves one issue in the case.”

Childs and his attorneys did not return repeated requests for comment this week.

Shine said he thinks the defendants’ response came as expected.

“I’m not surprised,” Shine said. “I’d been told by others that a typical response is a denial of everything — it’s a typical boilerplate legal response.”

Childs and his firm also laid out 14 arguments in their defense, including allegations that Shine is not entitled to an award because any alleged infringement occurred before Shine registered his designs with the U.S. Copyright Office.

But Shine said that his design of the work in itself ensures that he has a copyright.

“By the very act of creating a work, it serves as a de facto copyright,” Shine said. “The fact that you’ve designed it ensures that you have the copyright.”

Childs and his firm said all alleged similarities between Childs’ Freedom Tower and Shine’s designs are solely “stock elements” that are common in modern architecture.

But after viewing photographs of the designs in question, Stanford University law professor Mark Lemley, an expert in intellectual property law, said he would be “surprised” if the court considers the designs’ similar elements to be so common that they would be considered “unprotectible” elements.”

“There are definitely similarities here and they seem to me to be unique,” Lemley said. “They’re not the sorts of things you see in buildings everyday.”

Yale architecture professor and New York urban planner Alexander Garvin — who resigned in 2003 as planning director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is responsible for building the Freedom Tower — said he does not think the elements in either of the designs could be characterized as “stock elements.”

“I think these are very special buildings by very talented men and they are not stock elements,” Garvin said.

Before the case goes to trial, Judge Michael Mukasey must set a schedule for discovery when the plaintiff and the defendants can exchange information and documents with each other. Baum said these types of suits typically take a significant time to resolve and this case is still at a “very early stage.”

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