Inadvertent Legal Errors Cannot Overturn Copyright Infringement

Nelita Collins

“No harm, no foul.” That was the message the U.S. Supreme Court delivered Feb. 24 in ruling that a copyright infringement verdict should not have been overturned because of inaccurate information in the copyright registration asserted. The Court’s 6-3 opinion vacates a Ninth Circuit decision that threw out an infringement verdict on the ground that the registrant should have known the law regarding filing multiple works within one registration, a practice referred to as group registrations.

In Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, a jury found that Unicolors’ fabric pattern copyrights were violated and the district court entered judgment for H&M to pay nearly $800,000 for selling jackets that infringed on Unicolors’ copyrights.  H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law that Unicolor’s copyright registration was invalid because for group registrations, all works in the applications must be published “in the same unit of publication.”  Unicolor released some of the garments containing the protected patterns to private customers, and released the others to the public at a different time.  Thus, the asserted registration did not technically satisfy the requirements.  The district court denied H&M’s motion and found that safe harbor provision of the Copyright Act allows for innocent mistakes of fact and law.  In this case, Unicolor was not aware that all works in a group registration had to be published “in the same unit of publication.”

The Ninth Circuit overturned this ruling, siding with H&M that Unicolors’ copyright registration was invalid because of legal errors in the application, saying a safe harbor provision for copyright registration errors only applies to factual mistakes, not unintentionally misreading the law. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, pushed back on this idea:

“In our view, however, §411(b) does not distinguish between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact. Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” he wrote.

Justice Breyer also noted that many copyright applicants are often “novelists, poets, painters, designers, and others without legal training” and said Congress never intended to make it more difficult for those non-attorneys to successfully apply for a copyright. “Given this history, it would make no sense if §411(b) left copyright registrations exposed to invalidation based on applicants’ good-faith misunderstandings of the details of copyright law,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision is s a victory for creators’ rights and provides some peace of mind for those creators filing copyright applications without the assistance of an attorney.  However, this decision will focus discovery on whether any errors in a registration—be them factual or legal—were made “with knowledge that [the error] was inaccurate.” 


Copyright © 2022 Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP All Rights Reserved.
National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 56

https://www.natlawreview.com/article/what-you-don-t-know-can-t-hurt-you-scotus-rules-inadvertent-legal-errors-cannot

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