February 24, 2022
Decided February 24, 2022
Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, LP., No. 20-915
Today, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that a copyright holder can file a copyright infringement suit even if its copyright registration application included inaccurate information that was the result of an innocent mistake of fact or law.
A copyright holder cannot bring an infringement suit unless it holds a valid copyright registration certificate. A certificate is valid even if it contains inaccurate information, unless the inaccuracy “was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate” and, “if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration.” 17 U.S.C. § 411(b). After Unicolors sued H&M for copyright infringement, H&M argued that Unicolors’ copyright registration certificate was invalid because Unicolors had knowingly included inaccurate information in its application by applying to register multiple works in a single application even though it had made those works separately available to clients and the public.
The district court ruled that a certificate is invalid under § 411(b) only if the applicant intended to defraud the Copyright Office, and Unicolors’ mistake of law did not evidence an intent to defraud. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that § 411(b) does not contain an intent-to-defraud requirement, and that Unicolors’ application contained factual information Unicolors knew was inaccurate. It was irrelevant, in the Ninth Circuit’s view, whether the inaccuracy was the result of Unicolors’ inadvertent misunderstanding of a principle of copyright law.
Whether 17 U.S.C. § 411(b)’s “knowledge” requirement excuses inadvertent mistakes of fact or law.
Yes. The “knowledge” element in § 411(b) requires a showing that the copyright registration applicant actually knew that the inaccurate information in its application was inaccurate, and excuses inaccuracies that were the result of an innocent mistake of fact or law.
“Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration.”
Justice Breyer, writing for the Court
What It Means:
The Court’s opinion is available here.
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