A white, expansive Colonial-style home — almost symmetrical and complete with columns and two dormer windows — could describe any multitude of suburban residences.
But one specific design of such a property is at the heart of a copyright dispute between a luxury home developer in Westchester County and a top architectural firm in neighboring Fairfield County. In early April, Mamaroneck-based KOS Building Group sued Granoff Architects in federal court in Manhattan, accusing the Greenwich-based firm of recycling a specific rendering that KOS had commissioned, among other allegations.
Granoff Architects and its founder, prominent Greenwich architect Richard Granoff, have since moved to dismiss the complaint and denied its allegations. Granoff, through his White Plains-based attorney Herbert Adler, claims that the court should prevent KOS’s lawsuit from moving forward because the plaintiff chose to litigate the matter instead of pursuing mediation. In seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, Granoff argues that both parties are contractually bound to resolve their disagreements through arbitration.
“This is a ridiculously frivolous lawsuit, without merit, that will be thrown out of court shortly,” said Granoff, the firm’s eponymous founder, in an email to The Real Deal.
KOS, whose owner is Bobby Ben-Simon, did not return requests for comment. A lawyer representing KOS, Benjamin Brash of Great Neck-based Rukab Brash, declined to discuss the case.
While legal fights over architectural designs are themselves not new, designs of Colonial-style homes have become a copyright battleground.
In 2014, a federal appeals court ruled against New York-based architect James Zalewski, who claimed that contractors infringed on his copyright when they built Colonial-style homes based on his designs. Zalewski had sold the licenses for those designs to two companies, but the architect claimed the defendants used his renderings in ways not allowed by the licenses and after they had already expired, according to the appellate court’s opinion.
The court ultimately determined that the similarities in the homes’ designs stemmed from consumer preferences, the style of Colonial structures themselves and “standard house design generally,” not from any wrongdoing on the part of the two homebuilders sued by Zalewski.
In a December 2017 report from the American Bar Association that cited the Zalewski decision, the organization noted that a “registrant cannot claim copyright protection for and assert infringement of elements such as the open floor plan of the Craftsman-style home or the front columns of a Colonial-style home.”
The story behind the litigation involving Granoff and KOS is similar to the Zalewski case, but it also reveals the relationships between high-end homebuilders, top architects and the residential brokers who serve them both in the real estate markets surrounding New York City.
KOS claims that it hired Granoff’s firm in 2011 to prepare architectural drawings for a home at 5 Fox Run Lane in Greenwich — all to KOS’s specifications, according to its civil complaint filed on April 5 in a U.S. district court in downtown Manhattan.
About 10 months later, KOS commissioned a rendering of the house from Victor Baran of Arkona LLC, neither of which are a party in the lawsuit filed against Granoff’s firm. KOS’s complaint alleges that Baran created the rendering to reflect its “sole specifications and design.”
The rendering was then provided to Granoff to make some modifications. KOS eventually built the Greenwich home on Fox Run Lane, which sold for nearly $6 million in late 2014, according to Zillow and a listing from Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices of America. In October 2018, Houlihan Lawrence, a brokerage with offices throughout Fairfield and Westchester, published its fall catalog of residential listings.
KOS claims that around that time it discovered “a new construction home” at 7 Cherry Blossom Lane in Greenwich, which used KOS’s rendering “as the sole image of the property,” according to the company’s complaint. The listing in Houlihan’s marketing materials, attached as an exhibit to KOS’ s lawsuit, describes the property as a “classically sophisticated five-bedroom and four-bath clapboard Colonial to be built,” priced at $4.5 million.
No such listing can currently be found on Houlihan’s website. KOS alleges that “Granoff Architects directed Houlihan to list” the Cherry Blossom Lane property without the developer’s approval. KOS said it sent cease-and-desist letters to the architectural firm, which never responded to the demands, according to court filings.
KOS asserts that a few months later, its rendering appeared in more Houlihan marketing materials. The brokerage released its winter residential listing catalog for 2019, one that also included an image of the Cherry Blossom Lane property without KOS’s consent, according to the developer’s complaint, which claims that its rendering also showed up in “new development” listings in Chappaqua known as Hillholme Manor and 2 Meadow Hill Way.
Two exhibits attached to KOS’s complaint include website screenshots of both Chappaqua listings with photos that appear similar to the company’s Fox Run Lane rendering. Houlihan’s listing page for Hillholme now has a different rendering, although a large, white, single-family home is still shown.
Stacy Levey, a William Raveis Real Estate agent now marketing the empty Meadow Hill Way property at $550,000, down from its previous $600,000 ask, said that it was part of Houlihan’s Hillholme development.
Houlihan has descbribed the Hillholme site as a five-home subdivision of between 6,000 and 7,400 square feet per home, with a potential purchase price ranging from $2.5 to $4.5 million. Raveis’ current online listing for Meadow Hill Way shows a spec home — a large, white, Colonial-style house — similar to Houlihan’s Hillholme listing.
Levey said she is just selling vacant land — with no home or development attached to the Meadow Hill Way property. The listing she holds is one of two remaining Hillholme lots that have yet to sell.
“We’re not building those houses,” said Levey, who is not named in KOS’s complaint and had not heard of it until contacted by TRD. “We’re just selling the land.”
Houlihan is not a defendant in the lawsuit filed by KOS against Granoff’s firm. The Berkshire Hathaway-backed brokerage, which has previously worked with Granoff in marketing his Greenwich luxury condominium complex, Beacon Hill II, declined to discuss the copyright case.