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Homebuilder copyright fight centers on designs

By Beth Kevit

A Muskego company’s lawsuit to prevent construction of a Burlington home hit a snag with the completion of the house last year.

Now, Burback Builders LLC is moving to plan B with its copyright infringement claim: mediation.

The homebuilder sued Rodney and Carol Bruno in August, claiming the couple stole Burback’s designs for their new home and gave them to Kansasville-based Haven Creek Homes LLC so it could build the house.

Burback also named as defendants Haven Creek and Amherst-based Blenker Building Systems Inc., which worked with Haven Creek to build the home.

Burback’s attorney, Christopher Conrad of Waukesha-based Nelson, Connell, Conrad, Tallmadge & Slein SC, declined to comment on the home but said he still wants his client to be paid for its work.

Kevin Lazarski, Haven Creek’s owner, said he cannot remember when he handed over the keys but knows it was sometime early in the fourth quarter of 2012. He said he is not sure whether the Brunos are living there, but the home is ready whenever they are.

The Brunos could not be immediately reached for comment and have not retained a lawyer.

The above rendering shows Haven Creek Homes' plans for the Bruno's home, while Burback Builders' design is below. (Renderings courtesy of lawsuit documents)

In its complaint, Burback asked a federal judge to bar Haven Creek from using Burback’s plans and to force Haven Creek to either “destroy” or “substantially modify” the home.

Haven Creek’s attorney, Mark Hinkston of Racine-based Knuteson, Hinkston & Quinn SC, said he never considered demolishing the home to be an option because the project was well on its way when Burback filed the lawsuit.

“I’ve never heard of that occurring,” he said.

According to U.S. Copyright Office records, Burback registered its design for the Bruno home June 20.

In Burback’s complaint, the company claims its design drawings had an “all rights reserved” notice barring their use “for any other project or purpose” without the company’s consent.

But, Hinkston said, Haven Creek didn’t use the plans for another project. It used them for the same project.

The plans Burback designed for the Brunos were modified, Hinkston said, and Haven Creek used them to build a home for the Brunos.

According to a list Hinkston provided, the home Haven Creek built had a completely different master bathroom than that designed by Burback and a redesigned kitchen, among other alterations.

Overall, Haven Creek’s home is 4 inches shorter and 2 feet narrower than Burback’s design, according to the list.

Conrad said he proposed mediation, which has not been scheduled, because copyright infringement lawsuits can be lengthy and can rack up significant legal fees. Haven Creek already has conceded to Burback’s most strident objection by removing the Bruno home’s plans from Haven Creek’s website, he said, so he feels comfortable trying to reach an agreement on the rest of the dispute.

Hinkston declined to say what his client would seek through mediation. But in general, he said, it makes more sense in copyright infringement cases to settle on damages and avoid mounting attorney fees.

Conrad refused to say how much Burback spent designing the Brunos’ home or what the company would charge for a similar design.

“My clients put a lot of time, money and creativity into creating these plans,” he said. “It’s their artistic vision, and they haven’t been compensated for any of that.”

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