The Supreme Court issued a recent decision that represents good news for copyright registrants. In Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L. P., 595 U.S. ___ (February 24, 2022), the Court held that a minor error of law by a copyright registrant did not invalidate a copyright registration.
The registration of a copyright is optional in United States copyright law because copyright protection arises automatically as soon as an original idea is recorded in a fixed medium, such as on paper or in electronic device that includes a memory. However, copyright registration is a prerequisite to enforce most copyrights in court.
Copyright registration also provides other advantages. These advantage include providing the registrant with an entitlement to certain evidentiary presumptions (i.e., proof that you authored the work and/or own the work). Copyright registration also provides copyright owners with ability to obtain certain remedies, including enhanced damages for willful infringement, statutory damages, and reimbursement of attorney’s fees and costs, upon proof of infringement.
The copyright registration process is relatively simple, but mistakes can happen. U.S. copyright law includes a safe-harbor provision, 17 U.S.C. § 411(b)(1)(A), that provides the ability to save copyright registrations that include certain inaccuracies.
The Unicolors decision concerns a copyright registrant who misunderstood a provision of copyright law and attempted to register 31 works in a single copyright application. The registrant was not aware or did not understand that the works had to comprise a single unit of publication.
The Ninth Circuit reviewed the application and declared the registration invalid. The circuit court held that the safe-harbor provision could not save this registration because the error was an error of law, not an error of fact.
The Supreme Court reviewed the text of the safe-harbor statute and determined that the law provided protection for errors of law and errors of fact, which resulted in the Ninth Circuit decision being vacated.