Unicolors v. H&M Raises Some Thorny Issues for Copyright Owners

On June 1, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case of a highly clerical nature, but one of particular interest to photographers and other visual artists who typically register multiple works in Group registrations with the Copyright Office. To reduce filing fees and provide some organizational structure to certain applications, the Copyright Office offers various types of Group registrations. In Unicolors’s case, it registered 31 designs in 2011 under a Group registration that allows individually copyrightable, “unpublished” works to be combined in a single application in instances where they will eventually be made publicly available on a specific date (i.e. “published”) as a unit.

An example of this type of “unit” registration presented by the Copyright Office is a board game, which may have pictorial, literary, and sculptural works that could be individually registered but which will be sold to the public as a bundle of works comprising a single unit as a game. But just to keep things lively, there are other Group registration options, some of which have been adopted since 2011, when Unicolors first registered its designs.

For instance, photographs (and only photographs) may be registered in Groups of up to 750 images under a single title (e.g. “Safari 2021”).* All photos in a Group registration must either be “published” or “unpublished,” but there is no requirement that the “unpublished” photographs anticipate a simultaneous publication date, and the “published” photographs are only required to share the same publication year. Confused yet? Stay tuned.

Enter Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P.

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. As a reminder to readers, under U.S. law, obtaining a timely response to an application from the USCO is a prerequisite for U.S. works in order for the copyright owner to bring an infringement action against a defendant.[1]

The Issues

Naturally, neither the Copyright Office nor the courts seek to invalidate copyright registrations for applicants who make honest mistakes or trivial errors. And in 2008, the ProIP Act reinforced this principle by amending the copyright law such that Section 411 now states that a certificate of registration may be valid, even if it contains inaccuracies, unless:

(A) the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration with knowledge that it was inaccurate; and

(B) the inaccuracy of the information, if known, would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration.

On that basis, and with concern for its constituencies, the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), joined by five other creators rights groups, filed a brief supporting the petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, arguing that even though Unicolors knowingly filed a Group registration for “confined” and “unconfined” designs, this does not meet the standard intended by the statute. Here, the petitioners assert that an applicant must provide inaccurate information with the intent to deceive the Copyright Office in order for a court to invalidate a registration pursuant to a lawsuit.

Petitioners cite a circuit split (between the 9th and 11th Circuits) on this exact question and further argue that if the Court disagrees with the intent to deceive standard, this would disturb case law sounding in trademarks and patents. Thus, the Court granted cert on this one question, and it is a big bouncing ball to watch for copyright owners in this case. Even if the facts could ultimately show that Unicolors provided false information with the intent to deceive, the important issue is whether SCOTUS will agree that such intent must be demonstrated in order for a court to invalidate a copyright registration.

H&M argues that the intent to deceive (i.e. commit fraud) does not exist in a plain reading of Section 411 and, therefore, Unicolors’s conduct meets the standard for invalidating the registration (i.e. that it knowingly provided inaccurate information that would have caused the application to be rejected had the examiner been aware of the inaccuracy). But because that inaccuracy is alleged to be that the 9 “confined” works did not share the publication date with the other 22 works registered in the Group, there is an underlying complication afoot in this case—one that irritates a sore spot in copyright law—which is that we lack a unifying definition of “published” as a matter of law.

Although the 9 “confined” designs were apparently made available to exclusive customers on the same date that the 22 “unconfined” designs were made public, the Court could find that the “confined” designs constitute a “limited publication,” which would be synonymous with a finding that they are “unpublished” based on the relevant case law. That would satisfy H&M’s proposed standard for invalidating the effective date of protection, but it presumably would not meet the bar of intent to deceive, if the Court agrees that such intent must be present.

I will say that it seems farfetched to assume that Unicolors intentionally sought to deceive the Copyright Office in this instance just to save itself the $35 fee for filing a separate registration application for the 9 “confined” designs. More generally, if this type of error can invalidate the registration on all 31 designs, this implies a lot of uncertainty for other rightsholders. For instance, although the Group photograph registrations mentioned above are less restrictive than “unit” registrations with regard to publication dates, the photographer is barred from mixing “published” and “unpublished” works in a Group. And as mentioned, the meaning of “published” is not exactly a settled doctrine.

With independent creators like photographers so often filing Group applications by themselves, and inevitably making mistakes, one can see why the petitioners representing those constituencies want the Court to find that the standard for invalidation must meet the high bar of an intent to deceive. But more specifically, creators would be hard-pressed to find ten practitioners, legal scholars, or courts to agree upon a straightforward definition of “published” as a matter of law. If that’s the case for legal experts, how are authors filing their own registrations supposed to be sure whether a Group registration comprising a few hundred photos might contain a mix of published and unpublished works?

In a follow-up post, I will delve a little further into the specific challenges for photographers in particular, the policy implications of this case, the unsettled meaning of “published,” and some of the proposals being discussed to resolve these matters for rightsholders.

*NOTE: Thanks to attorney Leslie Burns for clarifying via Twitter: “…the old system for unpub photos was virtually unlimited number in a single reg and no titles for individual photos were required; the new GRUPH has the 750 limit but it does require titles for each photo.”

[1] In order to comply with the terms of the Berne Convention, foreign works need not be registered with the USCO in order for the rightsholder to file suit in U.S. courts.

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