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US Copyright Office Expands Rights to Repair Software-Enabled Devices

The US Copyright Office issued new regulations expanding and strengthening consumers’ rights to repair software-enabled digital devices (such as video game consoles and medical devices) via exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Under 17 U.S.C. § 1201, it is generally unlawful to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to” copyrighted works. In response to proposals from several organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the iFixit and Repair Association, the Registrar of Copyright (as it has done every three years since 2000) made rulemaking recommendations to the Librarian of Congress; recommendations that have now been adopted as final rules. The new rules create exemptions to make it easier to repair software-enabled devices. In the prior rulemaking sessions, the Register of Copyrights recommended—and the Librarian of Congress adopted—17 groups of exceptions. This session, the Register recommended 14 additional classes of exemptions, all of which have been adopted.

Among the 14 classes of exemptions that were recommended and adopted are the following:

  • Computer programs that operate the following types of devices, to allow diagnosis, maintenance and repair:
    • Motorized land vehicles or marine vessels
    • Devices primarily designed for use by consumers
    • Medical devices and systems.

This proposed class initially included “modification” in addition to diagnosis, maintenance and repair, but the exemption for modifications was ultimately eliminated. The Register reasoned that including all “modification[s]” would encompass both infringing and noninfringing activities and would implicate the right to prepare derivative works, as well as other issues.

This proposed class, “Computer Programs – Repair,” was initially divided into four general categories: “(1) all software-enabled devices; (2) vehicles and marine vessels; (3) video game consoles; and (4) medical devices and systems.” Not all of the categories made it through, as the Register removed all software-enabled devices from the recommendations. The recommendations stated that this category would have made the class too broad and would have raised the complex question of which types of devices would qualify for permitted repair.

After consideration of all the issues, the Register determined the following three classes had sufficient commonalities to recommend them: Computer programs in devices primarily designed for use by consumers (such as the repairing of optical drives in video games), computer programs in marine vessels and computer programs and data in medical devices and systems. The adopted exemptions expanding the current exemptions for vehicle and device repair and added an exemption for medical devices and systems repair.

The Rules also expand exemptions for consumer-related devices only. In recommending exemptions for device repair, the Register found significant commonalities among uses and users in terms of the diversity of software-enabled devices designed for use by consumers. The Register determined that the narrowed uses of “diagnosis, maintenance, and repair” were supported by the fair use factors, and that the exemption was “not accomplished for the purpose of gaining access to other copyrighted works.” The recommendations also contained a special subset for video games, which narrows the exemption solely to the repair of optical drives. [...]

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Supreme Court to Consider Whether 17 U.S.C. § 411 Requires Referral to Copyright Office

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to review whether a district court is required to request that the Register of Copyrights advise whether inaccurate information, if known, would have caused the Register to refuse registration of the plaintiff’s asserted copyright. Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted). The question presented is:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit erred in breaking with its own prior precedent and the findings of other circuits and the Copyright Office in holding that 17 U.S.C. § 411 requires referral to the Copyright Office where there is no indicia of fraud or material error as to the work at issue in the subject copyright registration.

In the circuit court decision, Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P. (9th Cir. May 29, 2020), the Ninth Circuit held that once a defendant alleges that (1) a plaintiff’s certificate of registration contains inaccurate information, (2) “the inaccurate information was included on the application for copyright registration” and (3) the inaccurate information was included on the application “with knowledge that it was inaccurate,” a district court is required to submit a request to the Register of Copyrights “to advise the court whether the inaccurate information, if known, would have caused [it] to refuse registration.”




Copyright Office, Not Courts, Determines Validity of Registrations Containing Inaccurate Information

With the validity of a copyright registration at issue, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s judgment after a jury trial and award of attorney’s fees in favor of the plaintiff in a copyright infringement action, holding that the district court was required to request the Register of Copyrights to advise whether inaccurate information, if known, would have caused the Register to refuse registration of the plaintiff’s asserted copyright. Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., (9th Cir. May 29, 2020) (Bea, J.).

The appeal to the Ninth Circuit arose from a copyright infringement action brought by Unicolors, a company that creates designs for use on textiles and garments, against the global fast-fashion retail giant, H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M). After a jury found substantial similarity between a design created by Unicolors in 2011 and a design printed on a skirt and jacket sold by H&M four years later, the Ninth Circuit was tasked with examining the threshold issue of whether Unicolors actually holds a valid copyright registration for the 2011 design, which is a precondition to bringing its copyright infringement suit.

The garment design that Unicolors claimed to be infringed by H&M is one of 31 separate designs comprising a “single-unit registration.” To register a collection of works as a “single unit” under the Copyright Act, however, the works must have been first sold or offered for sale in “a single unit of publication.” On this point, H&M argued that the collection of works identified in Unicolors’s asserted copyright registration were sold separately instead of together and at the same time, which required the court to find Unicolors’s copyright registration invalid.

In its examination of the “rarely disputed” issue of whether a copyright is properly registered, the Ninth Circuit found the district court’s rationale for denying H&M’s petition to be “flawed.” First, the Court flatly rejected the district court’s requirement that H&M demonstrate that Unicolors intended to defraud the Copyright Office at the time of its application filing, and pointed to the Ninth Circuit’s 2019 ruling in Gold Value Int’l Textile, Inc. v. Sanctuary Clothing, LLC, where it clarified that there is no such intent-to-defraud requirement for copyright registration invalidation (and in doing so, rejected a series of Ninth Circuit cases that imply an opposite conclusion).

Second, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the plain meaning of “single unit,” under the Copyright Act’s provision for the registration of a collection of published works as a single unit, requires that the registrant first published the works in a singular, bundled collection. Therefore, the Court explained that the district court further erred in concluding that Unicolors’s application for copyright registration did not contain inaccuracies despite the inclusion of the company’s own designated “confined designs,” which, according to testimony and evidence in the proceeding, were sold separately and exclusively to individual customers and were not first sold together and at the same time with the rest of the works in the single unit registration.

With this underlying foundation, [...]

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