UNICOLORS, INC. v. H&M HENNES & MAURITZ, L. P.
Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit
No. 20–915. Argued November 8, 2021—Decided February 24, 2022
A valid copyright registration provides a copyright holder with important legal advantages, including the right to bring a “civil action for infringement” of the copyrighted work. 17 U. S. C. §411(a). Petitioner Unicolors, the owner of copyrights in various fabric designs, filed a copy- right infringement action against H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M). A jury found in favor of Unicolors. H&M sought judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Unicolors could not maintain an infringement suit because Unicolors knowingly included inaccurate information on its registration application, rendering its copyright registration invalid. The alleged inaccuracy stemmed from Unicolors having filed a single application seeking registration for 31 separate works despite a Copyright Office regulation that provides that a single application may cover multiple works only if they were “included in the same unit of publication.” H&M argued that Unicolors did not meet this requirement because Unicolors had initially made some of the 31 designs available for sale exclusively to certain customers, while offering the rest to the general public. The District Court determined that because Unicolors did not know when it filed its application that it had failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement, Unicolors’ copyright registration remained valid by operation of the safe harbor provision provided under §411(b)(1)(A). On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that it did not matter whether Unicolors was aware that it had failed to satisfy the single unit of publication requirement, because the safe harbor excuses only good-faith mistakes of fact, not law. Unicolors had known the relevant facts, so its knowledge of the law (or lack thereof ) was irrelevant.
Held: Section 411(b) does not distinguish between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact; lack of either factual or legal knowledge can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration under §411(b)(1)(A)’s safe harbor. Pp. 4–9.
(a) 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). Case law and the dictionary instruct that “knowledge” has historically “meant and still means the fact or condition of being aware of something.” Intel Corp. Investment Policy Comm. v. Sulyma, 589 U. S. ___, ___ (internal quotation marks omitted). Nothing in §411(b)(1)(A) suggests that the safe harbor applies differently simply because an applicant made a mistake of law as opposed to a mistake of fact. If Unicolors was not aware of the legal requirement that rendered information in its application inaccurate, it could not have included the inaccurate information “with knowledge that it was inaccurate.” §411(b)(1)(A). Pp. 4–5.
(b) Nearby statutory provisions help confirm that here “knowledge” refers to knowledge of the law as well as the facts. Registration applications call for information that requires both legal and factual knowledge. See, e.g., §409(4) (whether a work was made “for hire”); §409(8) (when and where the work was “published”); §409(9) (whether the work is “a compilation or derivative work”). Inaccurate information in a registration may arise from a mistake of law or a mistake of fact. Nothing in the statutory language suggests that Congress wanted to forgive applicants—many of whom lack legal training—for factual but not (often esoteric) legal mistakes. Moreover, had Congress intended a scienter requirement other than actual knowledge, it would have said so explicitly, as it did in other parts of the Copyright Act. Indeed, cases decided before Congress enacted §411(b) overwhelmingly concluded that inadvertent mistakes on registration certificates—many of which involved mistakes of law—neither invalidated copyright registrations nor disallowed infringement actions. The Court finds no indication that Congress intended to alter this well-established rule when it enacted §411(b). Pp. 5–7.
(c) Those who consider legislative history will find indications that Congress enacted §411(b) to make it easier, not more difficult, for nonlawyers to obtain valid copyright registrations. It did so in part by “eliminating loopholes” that allowed infringers to exploit mistakes in the application process to prevent enforcement of otherwise validly registered copyrights. H. R. Rep. No. 110–617, p. 20. Given this history, it would make no sense if §411(b) left copyright registrations exposed to invalidation based on applicants’ good-faith misunderstandings of the details of copyright law. P. 7.
(d) H&M’s remaining arguments are unavailing. First, the Court’s interpretation of the statute will not allow copyright holders to avoid the consequences of an inaccurate application by claiming lack of knowledge. As in other legal contexts, courts need not automatically accept a copyright holder’s claim that it was unaware of the relevant legal requirements. Willful blindness may support a finding of actual knowledge. Additionally, circumstantial evidence may demonstrate that an applicant was actually aware of, or willfully blind to, legally inaccurate information. Second, the legal maxim that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” does not apply in this civil case concerning the scope of a statutory safe harbor that arises from ignorance of collateral legal requirements. Finally, the “knowledge” question that the parties have argued, and which the Court decides, was a “subsidiary question fairly included” in the petition’s question presented. See this Court’s Rule 14.1(a). And the Ninth Circuit explicitly addressed the knowledge issue when it held that Unicolors’ “knowledge” of the facts underlying the inaccuracy on its application was sufficient to demonstrate knowledge under §411(b)(1)(A) without regard to Unicolors’ knowledge of the relevant law. Pp. 8–9.
959 F. 3d 1194, vacated and remanded.
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Alito, J. joined, and in which Gorsuch, J. joined, except as to Part II.