Wait . . . Ignorance of the Law is an Excuse?

In Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., 595 U.S. — (2022), the Supreme Court held that under 17 USC 411(b)(1)(A) a certificate of registration is valid even though it contains inaccurate information, as long as the copyright holder lacked “knowledge that is was inaccurate.” 17 USC 411(b)(1)(A).

Unicolors owned copyrights in various fabric designs, and sued H&M for copyright. The jury found in Unicolors’ favor, and the district court denied H&M’s motion for JMOL because the certificate of registration contained inaccurate information. However, the 9th Circuit reversed, finding that Unicolors failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement, because it offered some of the 31 designs covered by the registration to certain customers. The 9th Circuit took the view that the statute excused only good faith mistakes of fact. Unicolors sought certiorari to review the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of 17 USC 411(b)(1)(A).

The Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit, reasoning first that Section 411(b)(1)(A) says that Unicolors registration is valid “regardless of whether the certificate contains any inaccurate information unless . . . the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate. Unicolors argued that, when it submitted its registration application, it was not aware (as the Ninth Circuit would later hold) that the 31 designs it was registering together did not satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement. The Supreme Court said that if Unicolors was not aware of the legal requirement that rendered the information in its application inaccurate, it did not include that information in its application “with knowledge that it was inaccurate.” §411(b)(1)(A) (emphasis added). The Court said that nothing 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. In fact, Supreme Court observed, “[i]naccurate information in a registration is therefore equally (or more) likely to arise from a mistake of law as a mistake of fact. That is especially true because applicants include novelists, poets, painters, designers, and others without legal training. Nothing in the statutory language suggests that Congress wanted to forgive those applicants’ factual but not their (often esoteric) legal mistakes.”

The Supreme Court looked to other provisions of the Copyright Statute to confirm that in
this context, the word “knowledge” means actual, subjective awareness of both the facts and the law. The Supreme Court also noted that cases decided before Congress enacted
§411(b) overwhelmingly held that inadvertent mistakes on registration certificates did not invalidate a copyright and thus did not bar infringement actions, and that there is no indication that Congress intended to alter this well-established rule when it enacted §411(b).

The Supreme Court also looked to the legislative history, noting that it indicates that Congress enacted §411(b) to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid copyright registrations. Given this history, it made no sense to the Supreme Court if §411(b)
left copyright registrations exposed to invalidation based on applicants’ good-faith misunderstandings of the details of copyright law.

H&M argued that such an interpretation of the statute would make it too easy for copyright holders, by claiming lack of knowledge, to avoid the consequences of an inaccurate application. But, the Supreme Court noted, the courts need not automatically accept a copyright holder’s claim that it was unaware of the relevant legal requirements of copyright law. We have recognized in civil cases that willful blindness may support a finding of
actual knowledge.

H&M also argued that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” The Supreme Court said that this maxim “normally applies where a defendant has the requisite mental state in respect to the elements of a crime but claims to be unaware of the existence of a statute proscribing his conduct.” The Supreme Court said that it does not apply in this civil case concerning the scope of a safe harbor that arises from ignorance of collateral legal requirements.