SCOTUS Rules Faulty Copyright Registration Based on Innocent Mistake of Law Doesn’t Doom Rights

Author: Jill A. Michael|March 31, 2022

A new Supreme Court decision shows us that making an innocent mistake of fact or law when filing an application for copyright registration does not automatically mean that you will lose your intellectual property rights...
SCOTUS Rules Faulty Copyright Registration Based on Innocent Mistake of Law Doesn’t Doom Rights

SCOTUS Rules Faulty Copyright Registration Based on Innocent Mistake of Law Doesn’t Doom Rights

A new Supreme Court decision shows us that making an innocent mistake of fact or law when filing an application for copyright registration does not automatically mean that you will lose your intellectual property rights...

A new Supreme Court decision shows us that making an innocent mistake of fact or law when filing an application for copyright registration does not automatically mean that you will lose your intellectual property rights. In Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a copyright holder could still pursue a copyright infringement action even though it included inaccurate information in its application. “Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the Court’s 6-3 decision.

Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

Unicolors, Inc., which owns copyrights in various fabric designs, filed a copyright infringement action against H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M). A jury found in favor of Unicolors. H&M sought judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Unicolors could not maintain an infringement suit because Unicolors knowingly included inaccurate information on its registration application, rendering its copyright registration invalid.

The alleged inaccuracy stemmed from Unicolors having filed a single application seeking registration for 31 separate works despite a Copyright Office regulation that provides that a single application may cover multiple works only if they were “included in the same unit of publication.” H&M maintained that Unicolors failed to satisfy this requirement because Unicolors had initially made some of the 31 designs available for sale exclusively to certain customers while offering the rest to the general public.

The District Court determined that because Unicolors did not know when it filed its application that it had failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement, Unicolors’ copyright registration remained valid by operation of the safe harbor provision provided under 17 U.S.C. § 411(b). It provides that a certificate of registration is valid “regardless of whether the certificate contains any inaccurate information, unless— (A) the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate; and (B) the inaccuracy of the information, if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that it did not matter whether Unicolors was aware that it had failed to satisfy the single unit of publication requirement, because the safe harbor excuses only good-faith mistakes of fact, not law. Unicolors had known the relevant facts, so its knowledge of the law (or lack thereof ) was irrelevant, according to the federal appeals court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court reversed. According to the majority, § 411(b) excuses inaccuracies that were the result of an innocent mistake of fact or law. “In our view, however, §411(b) does not distinguish between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact. Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” Justice Breyer wrote.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court concluded that nothing in §411(b)(1)(A) suggests that the safe harbor applies differently simply because an applicant made a mistake of law as opposed to a mistake of fact. It also found that nearby statutory provisions help confirm that “knowledge” refers to knowledge of the law, as well as the facts, noting that registration applications call for information that requires both legal and factual knowledge.

“Inaccurate information in a registration is therefore equally (or more) likely to arise from a mistake of law as a mistake of fact. That is especially true because applicants include novelists, poets, painters, designers, and others without legal training,” Justice Breyer wrote. “Nothing in the statutory language suggests that Congress wanted to forgive those applicants’ factual but not their (often esoteric) legal mistakes.”

The Court also cited legislative history indicating that Congress enacted §411(b) to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid copyright registrations. “Given this history, it would make no sense if §411(b) left copyright registrations exposed to invalidation based on applicants’ good-faith misunderstandings of the details of copyright law,” Breyer said.

Based on the above, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its ruling.

Key Lessons

The Supreme Court’s decision is good news for copyright holders that are filing for registrations on their own, and may inadvertently make errors.  Of course, this does not mean that such filers should not use their best efforts to get it right the first time. The Copyright Office issues various tutorials regarding the eCO (electronic Copyright Office) registration forms, as well as for each separate specialized form (i.e., PA, SR, TX, VA, etc.) that walk the filer through the form step-by-step, as well as explain what needs to be submitted (and how) as the “deposit material.”  As the Supreme Court made clear in its decision, courts must look at all of the circumstances to determine whether the mistake was truly innocent. The Court also emphasized that evidence of willful blindness may remove a copyright holder from the protection of the safe harbor.

If you have questions, please contact us

Given the complexities of the US Copyright Act, we encourage rights holders to work with experienced intellectual property counsel.  At Scarinci Hollenbeck, our experienced intellectual property attorneys can walk you through the copyright registration process and help ensure that your rights are protected from inception. If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Jill Michael, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.


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AboutJill A. Michael

Jill A. Michael is an accomplished intellectual property attorney who focuses her practice on corporate and entertainment law.Full Biography

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SCOTUS Rules Faulty Copyright Registration Based on Innocent Mistake of Law Doesn’t Doom Rights

SCOTUS Rules Faulty Copyright Registration Based on Innocent Mistake of Law Doesn’t Doom Rights
Author: Jill A. Michael

A new Supreme Court decision shows us that making an innocent mistake of fact or law when filing an application for copyright registration does not automatically mean that you will lose your intellectual property rights. In Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a copyright holder could still pursue a copyright infringement action even though it included inaccurate information in its application. “Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the Court’s 6-3 decision.

Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

Unicolors, Inc., which owns copyrights in various fabric designs, filed a copyright infringement action against H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M). A jury found in favor of Unicolors. H&M sought judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Unicolors could not maintain an infringement suit because Unicolors knowingly included inaccurate information on its registration application, rendering its copyright registration invalid.

The alleged inaccuracy stemmed from Unicolors having filed a single application seeking registration for 31 separate works despite a Copyright Office regulation that provides that a single application may cover multiple works only if they were “included in the same unit of publication.” H&M maintained that Unicolors failed to satisfy this requirement because Unicolors had initially made some of the 31 designs available for sale exclusively to certain customers while offering the rest to the general public.

The District Court determined that because Unicolors did not know when it filed its application that it had failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement, Unicolors’ copyright registration remained valid by operation of the safe harbor provision provided under 17 U.S.C. § 411(b). It provides that a certificate of registration is valid “regardless of whether the certificate contains any inaccurate information, unless— (A) the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate; and (B) the inaccuracy of the information, if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that it did not matter whether Unicolors was aware that it had failed to satisfy the single unit of publication requirement, because the safe harbor excuses only good-faith mistakes of fact, not law. Unicolors had known the relevant facts, so its knowledge of the law (or lack thereof ) was irrelevant, according to the federal appeals court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court reversed. According to the majority, § 411(b) excuses inaccuracies that were the result of an innocent mistake of fact or law. “In our view, however, §411(b) does not distinguish between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact. Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” Justice Breyer wrote.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court concluded that nothing in §411(b)(1)(A) suggests that the safe harbor applies differently simply because an applicant made a mistake of law as opposed to a mistake of fact. It also found that nearby statutory provisions help confirm that “knowledge” refers to knowledge of the law, as well as the facts, noting that registration applications call for information that requires both legal and factual knowledge.

“Inaccurate information in a registration is therefore equally (or more) likely to arise from a mistake of law as a mistake of fact. That is especially true because applicants include novelists, poets, painters, designers, and others without legal training,” Justice Breyer wrote. “Nothing in the statutory language suggests that Congress wanted to forgive those applicants’ factual but not their (often esoteric) legal mistakes.”

The Court also cited legislative history indicating that Congress enacted §411(b) to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid copyright registrations. “Given this history, it would make no sense if §411(b) left copyright registrations exposed to invalidation based on applicants’ good-faith misunderstandings of the details of copyright law,” Breyer said.

Based on the above, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its ruling.

Key Lessons

The Supreme Court’s decision is good news for copyright holders that are filing for registrations on their own, and may inadvertently make errors.  Of course, this does not mean that such filers should not use their best efforts to get it right the first time. The Copyright Office issues various tutorials regarding the eCO (electronic Copyright Office) registration forms, as well as for each separate specialized form (i.e., PA, SR, TX, VA, etc.) that walk the filer through the form step-by-step, as well as explain what needs to be submitted (and how) as the “deposit material.”  As the Supreme Court made clear in its decision, courts must look at all of the circumstances to determine whether the mistake was truly innocent. The Court also emphasized that evidence of willful blindness may remove a copyright holder from the protection of the safe harbor.

If you have questions, please contact us

Given the complexities of the US Copyright Act, we encourage rights holders to work with experienced intellectual property counsel.  At Scarinci Hollenbeck, our experienced intellectual property attorneys can walk you through the copyright registration process and help ensure that your rights are protected from inception. If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Jill Michael, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.