By Thomas James, Minnesota attorney
In Fourth Estate Public Benefits Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, 139 S. Ct. 881, 889 (2019), the United States Supreme Court interpreted 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) to mean that a copyright owner cannot file an infringement claim in federal court without first securing either a registration certificate or an official notice of denial of registration from the Copyright Office. In an Illinois Law Review article, I argued that this imposes an unduly onerous burden on copyright owners and that Congress should amend the Copyright Act to abolish the requirement. Unfortunately, Congress has not done that.
Congressional inaction to correct a harsh law with potentially unjust consequences predictably leads to judicial decisions exercising the power of statutory interpretation to ameliorate the consequences. The Court’s decision today in Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, __ U.S. __ (No. 20-915, February 24, 2022) is a case in point.
The district court proceedings
Unicolors owns the copyrights in various fabric designs. The company sued H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), claiming that H&M had infringed them. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Unicolor, but H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law (notwithstanding the jury verdict). H&M argued that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the requirement of obtaining a registration certificate prior to commencing suit. Although Unicolors had obtained a registration, H&M argued that the registration was not a valid one.
Specifically, H&M argued that Unicolors had improperly applied to register multiple works with a single application. According to 37 CFR § 202.3(b)(4) (2020), a single application cannot be used to register multiple works unless all of the works in the application were included in the same unit of publication. The 31 fabric designs, H&M contended, had not all been first published at the same time in a single unit; some had been made available separately exclusively to certain customers. Therefore, they could not be registered together as a unit of publication.
The district court denied the motion, holding that a registration may be valid even if contains inaccurate information, provided the registrant did not know the information was inaccurate.
The Ninth Circuit’s reversal
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the “single unit of publication” requirement. The Court, however, viewed Unicolors’ characterization of the group of works, in its application, as a “unit of publication” as a mistake of law rather than fact. It is normally a bedrock principle of the law that although mistake of fact may sometimes be asserted as an excuse, ignorance of the law generally cannot be. Since Unicolors had known the relevant facts, namely, that some of the designs had been reserved for some customers separately from the others, its characterization of the group, in the copyright application, as a “unit of publication” was a mistake of law, not fact. Applying the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, the Ninth Circuit held that Unicolor’s registration was not valid.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court’s reversal of the reversal
Section 411(b)(1) says that a registration is valid unless it contains information that the applicant knew was inaccurate. Bucking the traditional maxim that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, the Court interpreted the word know, in this context, to include knowledge of either an applicable fact or an applicable law. The Court drew upon legislative history suggesting that Congress intended to deny infringers the ability to exploit loopholes.
This is actually a good point. A major objective of international copyright treaties and conventions has been to eliminate formalities in the enforcement of copyrights. Registration is one such formality. One may legitimately ask, however, whether Congress’s decision to impose a requirement of obtaining either a certificate of registration or an official denial of registration from the Copyright Office as a precondition to enforcing a copyright reflected an intention to impose and enforce formalities despite the clear intent of treaties by which the United States has agreed to be bound. Not all other countries impose this formal prerequisite to copyright enforcement. In fact, legal scholars both here and abroad have criticized the United States for enacting and enforcing this formality.
The Court dismissed the traditional legal maxim that ignorance of the law is not an excuse by suggesting it only applies to criminal laws. As Justice Thomas points out in his dissent, however, a requirement to “know” a law (or a legal requirement) ordinarily is satisfied, even in civil cases, by constructive knowledge; actual knowledge is not necessary. Citizens generally are charged with the responsibility of knowing what the laws are, whether they are criminal or civil laws. It is not a defense to the imposition of punitive damages in a tort case, for example, that the defendant did not know that he might be subject to a larger damages award if he acted with intentional or reckless disregard for other people’s rights or lives. That ignorance of the law is not an excuse is a large part of the reason for the existence of legal advisers and the legal profession in general.
Thomas points out that in a previous cases, the Court has distinguished between a “willfulness” requirement, which requires proof of actual knowledge, and a “knowledge” requirement, as to which either actual or constructive knowledge normally may suffice. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201–203 (1991); Intel Corp. Investment Policy Comm. v. Sulyma, 589 U. S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 6–7). Indeed, the Court has acknowledged that other “knowledge” requirements in the Copyright Act may be satisfied by either actual or constructive knowledge.
Reading between the lines a little, I think there is room for speculation that some members of the Court regard the prelitigation registration requirement as a formality which, as such, is not really in keeping with the spirit of international treaties calling for the abolition of copyright formalities. Rather than allow a formality to stand in the way of an attempt to enforce a copyright, it is conceivable that the Court chose to deploy its power of judicial interpretation to effect what it believed to be the most just result in this case.
Another old legal maxim I remember from law school is “Hard cases make bad law.” It is too soon to tell how the Court’s decision in this case will play out in practice, but the Court’s allowance of an infringement action to proceed despite the fact that the plaintiff provided false information (whether factual or legal) when securing the registration does seem to open a fairly large can of worms.
Of course, the Court’s decision does not rule out a dismissal of an infringement action if the defendant can prove that the plaintiff had actual knowledge that he or she was providing false information at the time of applying for registration. Actual knowledge, however, can be very difficult to prove.
More importantly, how much mileage are courts going to let people get out of a claim that they did not know the law when they applied for registration? For example, will a person who purchases a copy of a book and then files an application to register the copyright in it be allowed to proceed with an infringement claim because he “did not know” that merely buying a copy of a work does not amount to a purchase of the copyright? (cf. these guys.)
Of course, copyright ownership can still be disputed in an infringement proceeding even after the Court’s decision in this case. Except in the rare case where it can be proven that an applicant actually knew his works did not qualify for the kind of registration application he used, however, it seems like the Court’s decision opens up the copyright registration application process to a great deal of potential abuse, at least when the “error” is not obvious enough for the Copyright Office to detect from the face of the application itself.
Once again, I would suggest that perhaps Congress should just consider abolishing the pre-litigation registration requirement.