Supreme Court Vacated and Remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes and Mauritz, LP
Written February 24, 2022
In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Breyer, in Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., No. 20-915 (Feb. 24, 2022), the Supreme Court addressed the validity of a copyright registration based on a mistake of fact or law in the registration application. The Court vacated and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and held that the Copyright Act provides that a certificate of registration is valid, even though it contains inaccurate information, as long as the copyright holder lacked “knowledge that it was inaccurate.” §411(b)(1)(A). The Court stated that “[n]othing in the statutory language suggests that this straightforward conclusion should be any different simply because there was a mistake of law as opposed to a mistake of fact.”
Unicolors owns a copyright in fabric designs and had sued H&M Hennes & Mauritz for copyright infringement. After a jury verdict finding copyright infringement, H&M sought judgment as a matter of law that Unicolors’ registration was invalid as containing inaccurate information because it had filed a single application for 31 works and failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement. The district court denied the motion, finding that Unicolors did not know it had failed to satisfy this requirement when it filed its application. The Ninth Circuit reversed on the basis that the safe harbor of §411(b)(1)(A) only excused good-faith mistakes of fact, and not mistakes of law.
In vacating the Ninth Circuit decision, the Supreme Court described Unicolors’ mistake as “a mistake of labeling.” Reviewing the text of the statute, the Court found that “with knowledge that it was inaccurate” under §411(b)(1)(A) applies equally to mistakes of fact or law. Other provisions of the statute confirm that “knowledge” means “actual, subjective awareness of both the facts and the law.” Section 411(b) was intended as a safe-harbor and the legislative history “indicates that Congress enacted [the statute] to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid registrations.” The Court further noted that willful blindness may support a finding of actual knowledge.
The dissent, authored by Justice Thomas, argued that writ of certiorari was improvidently granted. It found that the question under review was directed to whether §411(b)(1)(A)’s knowledge requirement requires an indicia of fraud, and the majority addressed a different question. The majority, by contrast, found that the “knowledge” question was a subsidiary question that was included within the question presented.