Copyright Applications – The Supreme Court Forgives You For Your Mistakes

Supreme Court issues decision in H&M copyright case

The Supreme Court issued a decision today saying that mistakes made in a filing of a copyright application by a copyright application lawyer do not affect the validity of the copyright.

The Safe Harbor provision of the Copyright Act provides that a copyright 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.” §411(b)(1)

In this case, Unicolors, the owner of 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 argued that Unicolors did not meet 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 §411(b)(1)(A). 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.

The Court held today that Section 411(b) does not distinguish between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact. Lack of either factual or legal knowledge can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration under §411(b)(1)(A)’s safe harbor provision. Under the statute, the copyright owner must have knowledge that the information is inaccurate. The Court held that case law and the dictionary instruct that “knowledge” has historically “meant and still means the fact or condition of being aware of something.” Intel Corp. Investment Policy Comm. v. Sulyma, 589 U. S. ___, ___. The Court held 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. If Unicolors was not aware of the legal requirement that rendered information in its application inaccurate, it could not have included the inaccurate information “with knowledge that it was inaccurate.” §411(b)(1)(A).

We are all human and mistakes will happen. The Supreme Court recognizes that fact with today’s decision. Mistakes made in filing your copyright applications will not affect your legal rights.

The case is Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., No. 20–915.

Please don’t hesitate to contact Keener and Associates, P.C. with any questions or to file your copyright applications today.