To Err is Human: Unicolors v. H&M at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in the copyright case Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., a lawsuit bogged down in tiresome and tangential details, but which is important for independent creators. And speaking of tangential details, I noticed that Justice Sotomayor inadvertently used the term “patent trolls” during her brief interaction with counsel, and the reason I mention this minor gaffe is to say that if a Justice of the Supreme Court can make an honest mistake while speaking about the law, so can legal laymen. And that point is at the heart of this case.

The administrative and legal factors underlying this case are as follows: 1) timely and valid registration with the Copyright Office is required to fully enforce an infringement claim in federal court; 2) copyrights claimed in Group registrations may not comprise both published and unpublished works in the same Group; and 3) a registration may be invalidated at trial if the registration applicant knowingly provided inaccurate information and the inaccuracy, if known by the Office, would have caused the registration application to be denied. With that, I will restate the summary of the case from an earlier post.

Unicolors makes original designs for use in textiles, and in 2015, a jury found that retailer H&M copied one of its designs and, thus, awarded Unicolors damages and legal fees for copyright infringement. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, however, H&M argued that the relevant Group copyright registration should be invalidated because the Group comprising 31 designs, included 9 designs that Unicolors had “confined,” meaning that they were temporarily exclusive to certain customers. H&M argues, therefore, that Unicolors registered these 9 works in the Group knowing that they would not be “published” simultaneously with the other 22 designs. The Ninth Circuit agreed with H&M. It reversed the jury decision and remanded with an order that the Register of Copyrights be consulted as to whether Unicolors’s error, if known at the time of application, would have caused the Copyright Office to deny registration for the Group filing.

So, the big to do here is not Unicolors’s fate per se, but the independent creator who is likely to use Group registrations at the Copyright Office and file her own applications without the aid of counsel. As discussed in this post and this podcast with Steven Tepp, the possibility that a photographer, for example, will inadvertently mix published and unpublished works in a Group registration—and not know about it until some defendant in a claim seeks to invalidate the registration—is actually rather high. This exact circumstance is further aggravated by the fact that the legal meaning of “published” is not entirely settled for legal experts, let alone authors of works, and as Tepp points out, is not something the Copyright Office really needs to know at the time of registration.

“Ignorance of the law is no defense is an old principle,” stated Justice Kavanaugh at one point in response to H&M counsel, Peter Stris. “It’s got a lot less force in regulatory areas, number one. But it especially has less force when the statute itself…folds the legal portion in.” [citation omitted]. If I can summarize almost 90 pages of transcript down to a key point, that would be it. The important question in this case is whether the statutory intent of Section 411 of the Copyright Act allows for errors in law but not errors in fact when submitting information to the Copyright Office.

Misstatements of fact (e.g. author’s identity) are grounds for invalidating a copyright, while misstatements of law (e.g. whether a work is published or is a derivative work) do not automatically meet the standard of “knowingly” providing false information. Not just in copyright, but throughout many areas of law, the distinction between innocent error and fraud is an essential matter of justice. To Justice Kavanaugh’s point, none of us can lay claim to a defense that we don’t know that grand theft is illegal, but ignorance about the arcane and administrative practices of government agencies is not only forgivable but would be downright suspicious if it were not common among nearly all of us. Or to quote Justice Gorsuch, “….no human alive can probably understand the whole of this chapter.”

Although there was some discussion as to whether Unicolors itself, having ample resources, ought to have known better at the time it submitted its registration application, it sounded like the Court was not terribly persuaded by this line of argument. Justice Alito did ask Unicolors’s counsel Joshua Rosencranz what benefit his client gains by the Group registration, and the answer underscores the absurdity of the unforgiving standard for which H&M is arguing. “…under the Ninth Circuit’s theory, we saved $65,” Rosencranz replied. And there you have it. What company knowingly files incorrect information and knowingly risks invalidating its copyrights in order to save $65? It’s prima facie silliness.

The Alleged “Troll Problem” in this Story

A group of 12 legal scholars filed an amicus brief in support of H&M on the grounds that if Unicolors were to prevail, the precedent set would exacerbate the “copyright troll problem.” But the brief stumbles over reality right out of gate, when it declares, “The copyright registration process underpins the modern copyright system. Maintaining the integrity of the registration process, particularly in light of the emerging threat posed by copyright trolls, requires adherence to the registration requirements.”

Aside from the fact that there is no clear evidence that we face an “emerging threat posed by copyright trolls,” abusive litigation in any area of law does not necessarily inform the construction or application of the law itself but is properly addressed through rules of civil procedure and/or bar ethics rules. Nevertheless, the professors’ brief argues that the Court should apply H&M’s legal standard for “knowing error” as a precedent that would mitigate against trolling in general.

The brief asserts two reasons for its position:  1) that the stricter standard for accuracy makes more work for putative copyright trolls; and 2) the possibility of invalidating registrations based on application filing error provides respondents with a defense against trolls. On the second point, I will note that the cost of discovery to arrive at that defense is likely higher than any settlement (just or unjust) the alleged troll is seeking. On the first point, even copyright skeptic Justice Breyer stated empathy for the legit author beavering away at his work and committing a filing error in contrast to alleged trolls about whom he said, “If there is one group of people that it’s going to be tough to make out a claim that they didn’t really know the law, it will be the real copyright trolls because they stay abreast of everything.” In other words, trolls don’t amend the scope of copyright law, but those complaining about them appear to be doing just that.

More broadly, let’s not overstate the registration process as the “underpinning of the system.” As it stands, the U.S. registration process is confusing, bureaucratic, and as we see emphasized in this case, bogged down in certain formal requirements that are not strictly necessary to the process. No other democratic nation with rich copyright systems maintains formalities akin to ours, and many of our formalities are relics of history, serve the purposes of the collection at the Library of Congress, and are testaments to our legislative stodginess.

Compliance with registration formalities is a bargain made by the copyright owner in exchange for the ability to fully enforce her rights, but we should not heap too much praise upon what amounts to a clerical process which is at least as bureaucratic as obtaining a driver’s license and, arguably, less necessary to the purpose at hand. As such, to the extent that Unicolors in this case stands in the shoes of all creators of works, the Court must find as a matter of justice that the statutory interpretation advanced by Unicolors maintains the consequences of lying without disturbing the principle that error is still human.

Photo by: colinn

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