On February 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that an error in an application for copyright registration can invalidate a registration only where the applicant has actual knowledge of or is willfully blind to the error, and the safe-harbor provision of Section 411(b)(1)(A) of the Copyright Act does not distinguish between mistakes of law or fact in excusing inaccuracies in a copyright registration. The decision in Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Maritz, L.P., resolves a narrow question of copyright law in a way that is forgiving to non-lawyer creators, and makes a defense (albeit an infrequently used one) for copyright defendants less potent.
The petitioner, Unicolors, owns copyrights in various fabric designs and sued the respondent, H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P. (H&M), for copyright infringement. After a jury found for Unicolors, H&M asked the district court to enter a judgment that Unicolors' copyright registration certificate was invalid because Unicolors filed a single application for 31 separate works. According to H&M, under the Copyright Office's regulations, a single application may only be used for multiple works if they were "included in the same unit of publication," but Unicolors had made some of the copyrighted designs available exclusively to certain customers, while others were immediately available to the general public.
The district court ruled against H&M and found that Unicolors did not know it had failed to satisfy the "single unit of publication" requirement when it filed its application, and that its error, therefore, did not invalidate the registration under the safe-harbor provision of Section 411. The 9th Circuit, however, reversed, finding that Unicolors' knowledge of the legal requirement was irrelevant because the safe-harbor provision only excuses good faith mistakes of fact, not law, and Unicolors had knowledge of the relevant facts.
In its opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, the Court reversed the 9th Circuit, holding that the safe-harbor provision does not distinguish between good faith mistakes of fact or law. The Court relied on three main principles.
- The plain text of the statute does not distinguish between mistakes of fact or law. Section 411(b)(1) states that a registration is valid regardless of whether the "certificate contains inaccurate information," unless the inaccuracy was included in the registration "with knowledge that it was inaccurate." The Court looked to other nearby statutory provisions to confirm Congress's intent to impose an actual knowledge requirement.
- Cases decided before enactment of the safe-harbor provision overwhelmingly held that inadvertent mistakes, both of fact and law, did not invalidate copyright registrations.
- The legislative history of Section 411(b) indicates that the provision was enacted "to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid copyright registrations" by "eliminating loopholes that might prevent enforcement of otherwise validly registered copyrights."
Justice Breyer's opinion rejected H&M’s arguments that copyright holders will be able avoid consequences of an inaccurate application too easily, observing that courts need not blindly accept copyright holders' claims of lack of knowledge of the law. Likewise, it cautioned that courts can still look at circumstantial evidence such as "the significance of the legal error, the complexity of the relevant rule, the applicant's experience with copyright law, and other such matters" to find an applicant was actually aware of or willfully blind to legally inaccurate information. Additionally, the Court found H&M's argument that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" does not apply where, as here, a safe-harbor provision is meant to deal with precisely that issue.