Supreme Court Holds that Ignorance Can Excuse Inaccuracy in Copyright Registration

Birds on a purple background

The US Supreme Court has held that lack of either legal or factual knowledge can excuse inaccuracy in copyright registration.

In Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., Unicolors owned copyrights in fabric designs. It sued H&M for infringing these copyrights.

The case went to trial – which is rare in copyright cases – and the jury found in favor of Unicolors. However, H&M asked the judge to grant it judgment as a matter of law.

H&M argued that Unicolors’ copyright registration certificate was invalid and thus that Unicolors could not sue for infringement on the basis of a certificate with inaccurate information.

H&M pointed out that the registration was improper because Unicolors had filed a single registration for 31 separate works.

H&M cited a Copyright Office regulation that provided that a single registration could cover multiple works only if those works were “included in the same unit of publication.”

As the Court noted,

H&M argued that the 31 fabric designs covered by Unicolors’ single application (and therefore single registration) had not been published as a single unit of publication because Unicolors had initially made some of the designs available for sale exclusively to certain customers, while other designs were immediately available to the general public.

As the Court explained,

To obtain registration, the author of a work must submit to the Register of Copyrights a copy of the work and an application…. The application must provide information about the work. Some of this information is purely factual, but some of it incorporates legal conclusions. If the Register determines that the work is copyrightable and meets other statutory requirements, she will issue a certificate of registration. The information on this certificate reflects the information that the copyright holder provided on the application.

Naturally, the information provided on the application for registration should be accurate. Nevertheless, the Copyright Act provides a safe harbor. It says that a certificate of registration is valid “regardless of whether the certificate contains any inaccurate information, unless—

“(A) the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate; and

“(B) the inaccuracy of the information, if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration.”


a certificate of registration is valid even though it contains inaccurate information, as long as the copyright holder lacked “knowledge that it was inaccurate.”

The Supreme Court concluded that “Lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration.”

Justice Breyer (who is apparently a birder) offered this colorful analogy:

Suppose that John, seeing a flash of red in a tree, says, “There is a cardinal.” But he is wrong. The bird is not a cardinal; it is a scarlet tanager. John’s statement is inaccurate. But what kind of mistake has John made?

John may have failed to see the bird’s black wings. In that case, he has made a mistake about the brute facts. Or John may have seen the bird perfectly well, noting all of its relevant features, but, not being much of a birdwatcher, he may not have known that a tanager (unlike a cardinal) has black wings. In that case, John has made a labeling mistake. He saw the bird correctly, but does not know how to label what he saw. Here, Unicolors’ mistake is a mistake of labeling. But unlike John (who might consult an ornithologist about the birds), 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. Does that difference matter here?.... We think it does not.

Categories: Copyright