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Supreme Court Excuses Inadvertent Mistakes in Copyright Registration

February 25, 2022

by Shawn Leppo and Olivia Levine

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that certain types of inadvertent mistakes will not void a copyright registration.  In an opinion published February 24, 2022, the Court held lack of either factual or legal knowledge can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration.  Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz L.P., No. 20-915 slip op. (S.Ct. Feb. 24, 2022).

While U.S. law does not require a registration for a work to be entitled to copyright, registration is a critical pre-requisite before a copyright can be enforced in court and also provides for a number of additional remedies, including access to statutory damages and the ability to collect attorney’s fees.  An invalid registration can thus have major repercussions in litigation.  To limit the severity of that impact, the Copyright Act provides a registration is valid even if it contains inaccurate information unless (1) that information was included on the copyright application with knowledge of its inaccuracy and (2) if that inaccuracy would have otherwise resulted in the registration’s refusal.

Here, Unicolors owned a copyright registration for various fabric designs and sued H&M for copyright infringement.  H&M argued that Unicolors’ copyright registration was invalid because it contained inaccurate information.  Copyright Office rules permit a single registration to cover multiple works only in certain limited circumstances, such as when those works are included as part of the same publication.  Unicolors filed a single application for 31 separate works.  Unicolors had initially made some of the 31 designs available exclusively to certain customers, while the rest of the designs were immediately released to the public and, as a result, did not meet the criteria for a single application.  H&M argued that rendered Unicolors’ application inaccurate.  Unicolors countered it did not know it had failed to satisfy the legal requirement for a single unit of publication when it filed the copyright application and thus had no knowledge of any inaccuracy.

While the lower court decisions focused on whether the law requires an intent to defraud the Copyright Office, the Supreme Court did not reach that question.  Rather, the Court found that reference to “knowledge” of an inaccuracy in the relevant section of the law was both knowledge of the law as well as of the facts.  The Court reasoned if Congress intended to impose a standard other than actual knowledge, it would have explicitly included that language, but the law made no distinction between law or fact.  The Court reached its conclusion at least in part by finding Congress enacted the particular section of the law at issue to make it easier for authors to obtain copyright registrations on their own.

Because Unicolors was not aware that the 31 designs it was registering together did not satisfy the single unit of publication requirement that rendered the information in the application inaccurate when it submitted the copyright application, the Court found Unicolors did not include information in its application with knowledge of an inaccuracy.  As a result, the validity of Unicolors’ copyright registration was upheld.

Authors, particularly those who file their own copyright applications and might have made some inadvertent mistakes along the way, thus have some assurance that any such mistakes will not void their registrations.  However, it is important to note that such mistakes must be inadvertent and will not save applications with knowingly false statements.  It also leaves open the possibility that a judge or jury will not believe a mistake was truly inadvertent, particularly if the copyright holder is a business or other sophisticated entity. Accordingly, care should still be taken in all aspects of the copyright application process.

© 2022 McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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