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Supreme Court to Consider Fraudulent Intent in Copyright Registration

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to consider whether a copyright registration accurately reflecting a work can nevertheless be invalidated without fraudulent intent. Unicolors Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz LP, Case No. 20-915 (Supr. Ct. June 1, 2021) (certiorari granted)

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court decision awarding Unicolors a copyright infringement award of $800,000 as well as attorneys’ fees. The Ninth Circuit ruled that although Unicolors improperly registered the copyright (in a fabric design) as part of a “single-unit registration,” the district court was wrong to find intent to defraud the US Copyright Office—a requirement for invalidating a registration.

The issue 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.

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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 [...]

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