Ignorance Of The Law May Be An Excuse In Copyright Registration

On February 24th, 2022, the Supreme Court has published a decision, Unicolors v H&M, that will make challenging the validity of a copyright registration much harder.

Under the US Copyright Act, registration of a copyright is necessary to bring infringement suits. Therefore, alleged infringers often try to prove that the copyright registration is invalid, and that therefore the owner cannot bring the suit. That strategy was used by H&M when Unicolors sued for infringement of several clothing patterns, and won at trial. H&M appealed, asserting that Unicolors’ registration was invalid due to an error in the application of the law.

The ultimate question in Unicolors focused on whether, in a copyright registration, both an error of fact, such as in the description of the work, and an error of law, such as in the appropriate method of publication, can be excused. According to the Copyright Act, if copyright holders make a mistake in registering the copyright, the registration remains valid as long as they had no knowledge of the mistake. Since the principle that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” does not apply in civil cases, and the Act does not distinguish between a mistake of a fact and a mistake of law, SCOTUS held that both errors are excused if there is no actual knowledge.

While the decision ultimately imposes a higher burden on alleged infringers, it was positively welcomed by copyright associations and rightsholders (see Copyright Alliance, Supreme Court (Finally) Renders a Copyright Decision That’s Not for the Birds). Copyrights holders should be aware, however, that consciously closing one’s eyes (i.e. willful blindness) will not save them from invalidation, as it may be interpreted as having knowledge of the error.