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Rutenberg wins suit on design copyright

In home building, imitation isn't just a form of flattery anymore. It can be illegal.

Just ask Andrew Vecchio of Drew Homes Inc.

The Tampa-based home builder recently lost a copyright infringement suit brought by Arthur Rutenberg Homes Inc. Drew was ordered to pay Rutenberg $56,430 and attorneys' fees for building a $330,000 house a judge ruled looked too much like a Rutenberg model.

Thanks to a relatively new federal law, their battle is becoming more commonplace.

A 1990 amendment to federal copyright laws extended protection to a building's structure, not just its plans. That meant a builder who walks through a model home and used the design as "inspiration" breaches the copyright, said Mary DiCrescenzo, litigation counsel for the National Association of Home Builders.

In this case, Vecchio copied it substantially from a Rutenberg brochure, U.S. Magistrate Charles Wilson ruled.

The "Verandah II" is a four-bedroom/four-bath home designed by Stan Heise. It features a sitting room off the master bedroom, an unusual breakfast bar and a distinctive partition separating the living and dining rooms.

Chrysalis Homes Associates bought the design and copyrighted it. When Chrysalis went out of business in 1990, Rutenberg bought the design.

In April 1991 Vecchio built a home in northwest Hillsborough County using a similar floor plan called the "Cashmere," another Heise design owned by an out-of-business builder. That plan was not copyrighted.

Later Vecchio found a Verandah II brochure and added some of its features. He sold the house in 1991 for $330,000, realizing a $12,502 profit.

At the time, he said, he knew Chrysalis was out of business. But he didn't know the copyright had been acquired by Rutenberg.

Nevertheless, Wilson ruled the Drew home looked more like the Verandah II than the Cashmere.

For Rutenberg, a Clearwater-based builder with 1992 revenues of $107-million, the victory was one of principle, said Ned Bellamy, its vice president of marketing.

Rutenberg has sued "dozens" of builders to protect its 70-plus home designs since 1980. The company has yet to lose case.

"It used to be that builders felt that all they needed to do is to take a house sheet or brochure and change the master bath or laundry room," he said. "I'm really glad to see the courts are upholding builders' rights."

Vecchio said Thursday he feels bullied: "This was completely unfair. It's a case of a large company pouncing on a small company."