Credit: Dubai Municipality
Does the Dubai Frame depict an ugly picture?
The United Arab Emirates is an architectural playground. Its existing man-made wonders include the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, while the world's first rotating skyscraper has been proposed here by architect David Fisher.
Blink and you'll miss the next superlative project.
One of its latest rising towers is the Dubai Frame -- which quite literally looks like a giant, gold-plated picture frame. Located in Zabeel Park, it is expected to open later this year and attract nearly 2 million tourists annually.
The 492 feet (150 meter) tall frame aims to complement the rest of Dubai's skyline by serving as an observatory, providing clear views of "Old Dubai" in the north and "New Dubai" in the south.
Except there's one problem.
Mexican-born architect Fernando Donis claims the idea was stolen from him, after he won a design pitch at an international competition in 2008, hosted by Dubai Municipality and ThyssenKrupp Elevator.
Intellectual property lawsuit claim
The terms of the ThyssenKrupp Elevator Architecture Award, which CNN has seen, were clear.
The winner's design would be considered by the Dubai Municipality and, if commissioned, only be used once a contract had been signed by both parties. The design owner would retain copyright and their design could not be used -- even in part -- without their formal consent.
But in an intellectual property lawsuit filed in the US against Dubai Municipality (not ThyssenKrupp) in 2016, Donis claimed he had not been included in the frame's construction process or been compensated for it.
After beating more than 900 other contestants to win the award, Donis' architecture firm entered into discussions with Dubai Municipality but ultimately, in 2013, rejected a final draft agreement because, he claims, it included several unexpected clauses.
For example, Donis wouldn't be able to use the structure in any of his company's promotional material, his team would have little involvement in the development and building process, and the contract could be terminated by Dubai Municipality at any time.
1/26 – The Tower, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
"It was a very unusual type of agreement. I'm not sure who would be willing to sign that because basically you lose it all," Donis tells CNN.
After he refused to sign, he says, construction of the Dubai Frame began the following year.
"We were shocked especially since the type of competition it was."
The competition was so attractive, Donis says, because it was regulated by UNESCO's International Union of Architects. UNESCO did not reply to CNN's request for comment.
Silence from Dubai Municipality
Donis admits the building rising from the desert today has changed from his original design -- the Dubai Municipality, in true Emirati style, has given the frame a more glitzy aesthetic. Currently, workers are installing stainless steel gold cladding over its exterior.
The essential structure, however, Donis believes remains "fundamentally the same."
"It is the same height, it's very much the same width, the location is exactly the same and the name is even mine," he says.
Donis proposed the Dubai Frame to be 492 feet (150 meters) tall -- the same height that Dubai Municipality has built it structure. The current frame's width is a mere 39 feet (12 meters) shorter than his original blueprint.
Last year, the Dubai Media Office even used a picture from Donis' design proposal in a tweet promoting the structure.
'We are very confident' about winning this case
Lawyers from Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP tell CNN the Dubai Municipality has not yet responded to their claims that it has breached Donis' intellectual property.
"Their silence is telling; they really have no substantive defense to the infringement claim," Andrew Celli says, adding that his team are confident in Donis' chances of winning the case.
"A jury will plainly see that the infringing Dubai Frame is an illegal copy of Fernando's award-winning design. Such blatant misappropriation by the Dubai Municipality and ThyssenKrupp is not just a clear violation of copyright law -- it is an affront to artists and architects worldwide."
Despite several attempts, CNN has not yet received a response from Dubai Municipality. ThyssenKrupp did not reply to CNN's request for comment.
Can you copyright a building?
So how do you copyright a skyscraper -- or an idea for one?
CNN spoke with Jeffrey Reichard, a construction and intellectual property attorney with Nexsen Pruet, about how to legally determine whether or not a skyscraper is counterfeit.
"There's a difference between an idea versus an expression," Reichard says.
"If the overarching idea is that 'I want to copyright an idea of a large picture frame as a building to look over the Dubai skyline,' that idea is not protectable under copyright. What would be protectable, though, is if you create blueprints for that idea -- then those blueprints are protected."
Reichard says even if someone hasn't registered the copyright to their intellectual property, it is still protected under copyright law and may be infringed.
"As long as you have fixed your design in a tangible medium and the other side has access to that design and then they create something that's substantially similar then that's infringement."
He says in order to protect yourself from copyright damages, one should register their idea as soon as possible.
"Registering it before the infringement commences gives you enhanced rights -- such as statutory damages and attorney fees.
"They encourage you to register early and register often by giving you these enhanced remedies."