The Supreme Court held today that lack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse inaccuracies in a copyright registration under Section 411(b)’s safe harbor provision of the Copyright Act.
Unicolors created fabric designs but did not publish them at the same time. Later, in February 2011, Unicolors filed a single application seeking copyright registration for thirty-one designs published at different times. In 2015, Unicolors sued H&M in the Central District of California for copyright infringement. A jury found that H&M willfully infringed Unicolors’s copyright in one of its designs.
H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law. It argued Unicolors did not hold a valid copyright because it violated 17 U.S.C. § 411 by including known inaccuracies in its application. Section 411(b)’s safe harbor provision excuses inaccurate information on a certificate of registration if the applicant included information without knowledge that it was inaccurate. Because the Copyright Office permits a single registration to cover multiple works only if those works were published together, H&M argued that Unicolors included a known inaccuracy in its application by filing a single application for works not published together. The District Court denied the motion, and H&M appealed. The Ninth Circuit remanded, holding that only good faith mistakes of fact, not law, are excused under Section 411(b). Section 411(b) provided Unicolors no safe harbor because it had known the relevant fact that the designs were not published together. Unicolors appealed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court held that mistakes of fact and law can excuse inaccuracies in a copyright registration. Reviewing the legislative history, statutory text, and precedent, the Court held that if Unicolors was not aware of a law that rendered the information in its application inaccurate, it could not have knowingly included inaccurate information in the application. The Court further reasoned Congress enacted Section 411(b) to make it easier to obtain copyright registrations and “[n]othing in the statutory language suggests that Congress wanted to forgive those applicants’ factual but not their . . . legal mistakes.” H&M argued the Court’s holding would allow copyright holders to easily escape consequences of an inaccurate application, but the Court dismissed this concern because lower courts “need not automatically accept a copyright holder’s claim that it was unaware of the relevant legal requirements of copyright law.” H&M also argued the Court’s interpretation is foreclosed by the legal maxim “ignorance of law is no excuse.” But the Court held this maxim is inapplicable in this context.
Justices Thomas and Alito dissented, writing that the Court’s “actual-knowledge-of-law standard” was unprecedented and that constructive knowledge normally satisfies a requirement to know the law. Indeed, the Justices noted other knowledge requirements in the Copyright Act are satisfied by either actual or constructive knowledge, and the majority did not point to any other provision in the Copyright Act satisfied by actual knowledge alone.