Ignorance of the Law Is an Excuse: Supreme Court Holds a Copyright Registration Containing Inaccurate Information Can Be Valid
Intellectual Property Update
Date: March 02, 2022
To obtain a copyright registration, the author of a work must submit an application to the U.S. Copyright Office in which the author provides information about the work. If the Copyright Office decides that the work is copyrightable and meets other legal requirements, the office will issue a certificate of registration reflecting the information that the registrant included on the application. Sometimes the registrant includes inaccurate information on the application, which could invalidate the resulting registration. The Copyright Act, however, contains a safe harbor. It provides that a registration is valid—despite inaccurate information—unless “the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate.”
In Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., 595 U.S. __ (2022), the Supreme Court focused on the words “with knowledge that it was inaccurate” and considered whether this language applies only when an inaccuracy in an application originates from the applicant’s lack of knowledge of facts or whether the language also applies when an inaccuracy flows from the applicant’s lack of knowledge of the law. The court determined that “[l]ack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration.”
In the Unicolors case, Unicolors owned copyrights in certain fabric designs, and it sued H&M for copyright infringement. H&M defended by arguing that Unicolors’ registration was invalid—and that Unicolors, therefore, could not sue for infringement—because it included inaccurate information. Under a certain Copyright Office regulation, a registrant can file a single application covering multiple works only if the works meet particular requirements. Here, Unicolors had filed a single application for 31 separate works even though, unbeknownst to Unicolors, the works did not meet the legal requirements. The question at hand was whether this lack of knowledge satisfied the language in the Copyright Act “with knowledge that it was inaccurate.” The court held that it did, such that the inaccurate information did not invalidate Unicolors’ copyright registration.
The court provided several reasons in support of its ruling. As an initial matter, the court’s conclusion was driven by the text of the Copyright Act. Unicolors claimed that it did not know that the 31 designs it was registering failed to meet the requirements for inclusion in a single application. On its face, this scenario appears to satisfy the safe harbor provision in the Copyright Act. That is, Unicolors did not act “with knowledge that [information in its application] was inaccurate.”
Further, the safe harbor does not explicitly differentiate between knowledge of fact and knowledge of law. If Congress had intended for the safe harbor to apply to factual mistakes and not legal mistakes, Congress could have, and presumably would have, made this clear in the language of the safe harbor itself. Its failure to do so suggests that Congress intended for the safe harbor to cover both factual and legal mistakes.
This conclusion was further supported by the legislative history of the safe harbor. That history shows that Congress enacted the safe harbor to make it easier to obtain and enforce copyrights and to eliminate loopholes that might prevent the enforcement of otherwise valid copyright registrations. In light of these purposes, it would be nonsensical if the safe harbor allowed for invalidation of copyrights based on a misunderstanding of the details of copyright law.
Having concluded that the safe harbor applies to legal mistakes as well as factual mistakes, the court placed an important limit on the scope of its holding. It explained that lower courts need not automatically accept a copyright holder’s assertion that it did not know or understand copyright law. Copyright registrants are not permitted to be willfully blind to legal requirements. That is, if a registrant chooses to ignore, or remain ignorant about, copyright law, the registrant cannot later claim that their ignorance or misunderstanding of the law is forgivable under the safe harbor. Further, courts may consider circumstantial evidence, including the seriousness of the legal error, the complexity of the applicable rule, and the applicant’s prior experience with copyright law, and determine that an applicant was in fact aware of legally inaccurate information in a copyright registration.
Even with this limitation, the court’s decision is obviously a boon for copyright applicants and holders. It decreases the likelihood that a copyright registration will be invalidated. Nevertheless, because copyright applicants cannot remain willfully blind to legal requirements, they should consult with counsel about any ambiguities or uncertainties in those requirements.
For those who have already obtained a copyright, they should not assume that their registration is invalid simply because it contains inaccurate information. Instead, they should discuss with legal counsel the reasons for the inaccuracy and work with counsel to develop an argument that the inaccuracy falls within the Copyright Act’s safe harbor.
For alleged copyright infringers, the court’s decision obviously presents a less rosy picture. It decreases the tools available to invalidate a copyright registration. Alleged infringers are less likely to be able to invalidate a registration based simply on inaccurate information in the registration. Instead, alleged infringers will likely need to work with counsel to identify and develop defenses that are less obvious and more nuanced.
In closing, it is often said that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and on its face, the Supreme Court’s ruling runs afoul of this adage. The court, however, was aware of this tension and directly addressed it, finding that the adage on “ignorance of the law” normally applies when a criminal defendant claims to be unaware that certain conduct is illegal. According to the court, the adage does not apply under the circumstances of the present civil case. So, it appears that, in this context at least, ignorance of the law—but not willful blindness—is an excuse.
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