An unprecedented intellectual property dispute between two Yale School of Architecture alumni over the design of the Freedom Tower — the Lower Manhattan building set to replace the fallen World Trade Center — came to a quiet conclusion this summer, producing no clear victor and leaving many questions unanswered.
Thomas Shine ARC ’00, who sued David Childs ’63 ARC ’67 in 2004 for copying his design while crafting the blueprints for the Freedom Tower, withdrew his lawsuit in July. Shine, Childs and their respective lawyers declined to comment this week, instead referring the News to a joint statement released this summer that offered no clear explanation as to why a settlement was suddenly reached.
“After reviewing approximately 100,000 pages of documents and drawings produced in this action, the parties have reached an agreement under which Plaintiff Thomas Shine has withdrawn his claim … and SOM (Childs’ firm) and David Childs have withdrawn their claim for legal fees against Mr. Shine,” the statement read.
The lawsuit, which promised to clarify the copyright protections provided to architects, began in 2003 when Shine recognized a striking resemblance to a blueprint for two buildings — “Shine ’99” and “Olympic Tower” — that he had submitted to a Yale panel in December 1999. He then accused Childs, who sat on that panel of jurists and had said that design had “a very beautiful shape,” of architectural plagiarism.
The two designs, according to Shine, were similar in many respects. Shine’s attorney, Andrew Baum, said last year that both skyscraper designs are similar in their twisting towers, symmetrical exterior diagonal column grids and patterns of “elongated diamonds.” But a spokeswoman for Childs’ firm countered that many of these apparent similarities are industry standards, adding that a team of architects “combined these elements in a unique way that reflects the special nature of the building’s site and its importance.”
For Yale architecture professor Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67, the conflict hit particularly close to home. Garvin met Childs as an undergraduate and remained his classmate at the Architecture School, taught Shine years later at Yale and served as the vice president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation until 2003 and on New York City’s planning commission.
Though Garvin — who also sat on the 1999 evaluation panel — said he has no way of telling for sure, he believes it is unlikely that Childs intentionally copied Shine, even if a resemblance could be discerned.
“There are lots of [similar] ideas in the world that come to people that may have no real connection,” he said. “It’s very difficult to ascribe the similarity to an attempt by somebody to copy another.”
Garvin said he knew Childs as a “person of great integrity” and said he maintains the “highest respect” for Shine.
“I’m sure if these two people came to this agreement, they had good reasons for it,” Garvin said.
Ethan Katz, a Yale Law School lector and the executive director of the Law School’s Information Society Project, said that only an extensive factual inquiry would have been able to establish whether the two designs are even similar enough to warrant a copyright infringement claim. He said that while this is generally hard to prove, Childs’ almost exclusive access to the design in 1999 may have made Shine’s claim more credible.
“The problem with things like architecture is the fact that there are elements that are common to many buildings, and it’s actually hard to prove the distinctiveness of a design,” Katz said. “[But] the fact that he had access to it would be a strong presumption in favor of copying … as opposed to [Childs] hearing a song on the radio.”
Legal disputes in America over intellectual property questions related to art have rarely addressed the complicated question of architectural copyright and more frequently focus on music, paintings, and other easily attributable mediums of expression.
After a string of delays, construction for the Freedom Tower, one of several buildings to be erected at the former site of the World Trade Center, began in April and is set to conclude in 2011.