On February 24th, the Supreme Court ruled that lack of either factual or legal knowledge can excuse inaccuracies in copyright registrations under Section 411(b)(1)(A) of the Copyright Act.
Petitioner Unicolors, a fabric design company, sued Respondent H&M for copyright infringement. Although the jury found in Unicolors' favor, H&M requested that the trial court grant it judgement as a matter of law. H&M argued that Unicolors' registration certificate was inaccurate because Unicolors had wrongly sought registration for 31 separate works in a single application, violating the "single unit of publication" rule. According to H&M, this meant that the certificate was invalid, and thus Unicolors could not bring its copyright lawsuit.
The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that Unicolors made "a mistake of labeling." According to the Court, "Unicolors must look to judges and lawyers as experts regarding the proper scope of the label 'single unit of publication.' The labeling problem here is one of law." Unicolors claimed that it was not aware that the multiple designs it registered in a single application did not satisfy the "single unit of publication" rule. According to the Court, if Unicolors did not know about this legal requirement, then it did not "include that information in its application 'with knowledge that it was inaccurate.'"
However, the Court noted that this is not a free pass for copyright holders to claim that they were not aware of legal requirements. Instead, "[c]ircumstantial evidence, including the significance of the legal error, the complexity of the relevant rule, the applicant's experience with copyright law, and other such matters, may also lead a court to find that an applicant was actually aware of, or willfully blind to, legally inaccurate information." Thus, copyright holders should set out to get their registrations right the first time and correct mistakes when they find them.
The case is Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, case number 20-915.
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