Supreme Court Says Mistake of Law Can Excuse Inaccurate Copyright Registration
February 24, 2022
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Decided on February 24, 2022
Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, LP., No. 20-915
Today the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a copyright owner can sue for infringement even if their application for copyright registration included inaccurate information resulting from a mistake of fact or by right innocent.
A copyright owner can only sue for infringement if they hold a valid copyright registration certificate. A certificate is valid even if it contains inaccurate information, unless the inaccuracy “was included in the application for registration of copyright knowing that it was inaccurate” and, “if known, would have caused the copyright registry to deny registration”. 17 USC § 411(b). After Unicolors sued H&M for copyright infringement, H&M argued that Unicolors’ copyright registration certificate was invalid because Unicolors knowingly included inaccurate information in its claim. requesting the registration of multiple works in a single application, even though it had made those works separately available to patrons and the public.
The district court ruled that a certificate is only invalid under 411(b) if the plaintiff intended to defraud the Copyright Office, and the error of law Unicolors has not proven an intent to defraud. The Ninth Circuit overturned, finding that Section 411(b) does not contain a fraudulent intent requirement and that Unicolors’ application contained factual information that Unicolors knew to be inaccurate. It was irrelevant, in the view of the Ninth Circuit, that the inaccuracy was the result of Unicolors inadvertently misunderstanding a principle of copyright.
Whether the “knowledge” requirement of 17 USC § 411(b) excuses inadvertent errors of fact or law.
Yes. The “knowledge” element of Section 411(b) requires that it be demonstrated that the copyright applicant actually knew that the inaccurate information in its application was inaccurate, and excuses any resulting inaccuracies. an innocent error of fact or law.
“Lack of knowledge of a fact or law may excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright record.”
Judge Breyer, writing for the Court
What this means:
- The court’s decision means copyright owners can defend inaccuracies in registration certificates on the grounds that they result from an innocent error of fact or law. The Court’s decision could provide additional protection for copyright owners such as novelists, poets and painters who may be unfamiliar with the intricacies of copyright law or who derive good faith of erroneous conclusions about what the law requires.
- Although copyright owners can file new registration requests to correct innocent inaccuracies, copyright claims have a three-year statute of limitations, and statutory damages and attorney’s fees attorney are only available for offenses that occur after a valid record is in place. Today’s decision potentially expands the scope of cases involving inaccurate copyright registrations.
- The Court pointed out that willful ignorance of an inaccuracy can constitute actual knowledge under Section 411(b) and that circumstantial evidence – such as the significance of the error, the complexity of the relevant rule and the plaintiff’s experience with copyright – could influence whether the plaintiff was actually aware of the inaccuracy or voluntarily refrained from it.
The opinion of the Court is available here.
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