February 24, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P.

On February 24, 2022, the Supreme Court decided Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., No. 20-915, holding that an inadvertent mistake of law in a copyright registration applicant’s application does not render the application, and the corresponding registration, invalid.

To formally copyright material, an author must apply for a valid copyright registration by, among other things, submitting a copy of the work and an application for the copyright to the Register of Copyrights. Under the Copyright Act, the registration application may not contain information that the applicant knows is inaccurate and which, if accurately presented, would cause the Register of Copyrights to deny the application.

After Unicolors, Inc., obtained a jury verdict against H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., on its claims of copyright infringement, H&M argued that it was entitled to judgment in its favor based on the alleged invalidity of Unicolors’ copyright registration certificate for the disputed copyrighted work. In particular, H&M asserted that Unicolors’ copyright registration application, and the corresponding certificate, was inaccurate because it failed to comply with certain requirements of federal copyright law.

The district court denied H&M’s motion because it concluded that Unicolors did not know of the inaccuracies when it submitted the application, and, under the Copyright Act, the application and corresponding certificate remained valid. The Ninth Circuit overturned the district court. It held that the Copyright Act excused only inadvertent inaccuracies in registration applications due to mistakes of fact, not law, and that because the mistake in Unicolors’ application was one of law, the Copyright Act did not excuse it.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. It agreed with the Ninth Circuit that Unicolors’ copyright registration application contained a mistake of law that rendered it inaccurate. But, employing principles of statutory construction, analyzing precedent, and evaluating the Act’s legislative history, the Court held that the Copyright Act’s exception for inaccuracies turns on the applicant’s “actual, subjective awareness of both the facts and the law” and thus excuses inaccuracies in registration applications premised on mistakes of fact or law. The Court emphasized, however, that willful blindness or circumstantial evidence may still support a finding of an applicant’s actual knowledge of the facts or law sufficient to preclude the applicant from successfully invoking the Act’s inaccuracy exception.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for the Court. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, with whom Justice Alito joined and with whom Justice Gorsuch joined as to all but Part II.

Download Opinion of the Court. 

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