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Architect Less Than Flattered

Lawsuits contend that ex-employee used pilfered plans for real estate mogul's mansion. The case is expected to test copyright law.

September 18, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

After three decades in real estate, mogul Fred C. Sands is finally building what he envisions as a one-of-a-kind dream mansion in Bel-Air.

It turns out the house might not be so one-of-a-kind after all.

In two lawsuits -- one filed in state court, the other in federal court this month -- architect William Hablinski alleges that a former employee plotted with a family of builder-developers to pilfer plans for the Sands house and use them to construct a remarkably similar Tuscan-style villa in Beverly Hills.

The suits brand it the Copycat House.

But for an accidental discovery, Hablinski -- who has designed custom manses for Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver -- might never have learned of the second house.

According to the complaints and interviews, two Hablinski employees -- Dave Hogan and Richard Giesbret -- in April happened to drive by a construction site on Marilyn Drive in Beverly Hills. Hogan commented on the fine detailing on a pediment piece over a doorway. The men decided to take a closer look.

"I looked at the whole facade and said, 'This is the Fred Sands house,' " Hogan said.

Stunned, the men ventured inside and found what they considered striking similarities to the Sands residence in the floor plan and within individual rooms, including the dining room, the media room, the library and the gym.

During their tour, a worker laid drawings for the house on the floor. The size of the sheets appeared to be identical to that of the plans for the Sands residence, which is now nearing completion seven miles to the west.

There were variations, to be sure, because the Beverly Hills lot was much smaller than Sands'. The garage wing, for example, was different, but Hogan said he realized later that it was just like a wing designed for a previous Hablinski project.

Then Hogan noticed that a logo and Web site for MSH Design appeared in the same place where the William Hablinski Architecture logo was positioned on the original Hablinski drawings. MSH Design is the firm of Mehran Shahverdi, who once worked for Hablinski.

The state suit, filed in June, names Shahverdi as the defendant and alleges, among other complaints, that he stole trade secrets. The federal suit, filed Sept. 5, names the builders and owners of the Beverly Hills property, along with two companies they own. It alleges copyright and trademark infringement, unfair competition and other complaints.

Both suits seek unspecified damages.

The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, aims to test the bounds of the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, said Peter J. Bezek, Hablinski's attorney.

That law, designed to help bring the United States into compliance with the Bern Convention, an international copyright agreement, extended copyright protection to buildings. Previously, U.S. copyright code had protected architectural plans, but not buildings.

If either case goes to trial, jurors will be asked to compare not only the general appearances of the two houses, but also a variety of architectural features, from entablatures and pediments to fascia and architraves.

Unlike art, literature and, particularly, music -- which has spawned various lawsuits over illegal copying -- architecture is not about pure design, and that could complicate Hablinski's effort to win protection under the 1990 law, legal experts and architects said.

The lawsuits thus raise intriguing questions about what could be called architectural plagiarism.

"Architecture has a large functional component," said John Tehranian, a professor of intellectual property law and entertainment law at the University of Utah. "As a result, the courts are going to be very careful in terms of how far they grant architectural protection. You don't want someone to own the copyright on the door or the window. This would severely hamper the work of builders."

The issue is further muddied by the fact that architecture "is a profession that's based on borrowing," said Aleks Istanbullu, a Santa Monica architect who designs contemporary houses.

"Everybody builds on top of what others have built," Istanbullu said. "The copycat house is, at worse, the replica of a replica of a replica. Which generation of architects is it that was actually the copycat? They all were. It is a style that is being regurgitated over and over again, and Bill Hablinski has got the most recent claim to it.

"Under most circumstances, he would not have a leg to stand on," Istanbullu added. However, he acknowledged, if an employee stole plans and if that theft were sanctioned by others, that "is outrageous."

Shahverdi, through his attorney, denied all allegations in the state suit. An attorney for the individuals named in the federal lawsuit said he had not yet seen the suit and could not comment specifically on it, but he, too, denied any wrongdoing on the part of his clients.

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