Energy consultants clash over copyright in independent engineer’s report concerning coal-fired co-generation plants

Engineering consulting firms R.W. Beck and E3 Consulting provide independent engineering reports for developers to secure financing for energy projects.  When E3 provided a report for Calyon Corporate and Investment Bank on two coal-fired co-generation plants owned by Windsor Financing LLC, competitor R.W. Beck cried foul and filed a complaint in Colorado federal court alleging willful copyright infringement and three state law claims — unfair competition, deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment.

Reports disseminated by both companies contained a section called “Principal Considerations and Assumptions Used in the Projection of Operating Results.”  However, defendant E3 claimed that most of the language in Beck’s copyrighted reports was public domain because Beck had taken the material from a pre-existing third-party source which itself was in the public domain.

The district court granted summary judgment for E3.  In an Opinion issued August 14, 2009, the 10th Cir. affirmed as to the three state law claims but reversed and remanded on the copyright claim, finding that Beck had presented evidence that it had not used language from a third-party report, but rather its own in-house copyrighted documents.

Not too much should be read into this decision.  In finding that Beck presented evidence supporting its copyright and reversing summary judgment, the appellate court did not affirm the presence of a copyright belonging to Beck.  Rather, it merely affirmed that there is a factual dispute as to whether there is a copyright belonging to Beck, which the district court must resolve.  Moreover, the appellate court unfortunately was unable to address E3’s argument that Beck should not have a copyright because the language in the report is “functional” and not “expressive.”  The court held that Beck should be able to respond to this argument at the district court.

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