Industry News

Supreme Court Copyright Ruling a Big Win for Photographers and other Creators

March 3, 2022

By Hillary K. Grigonis

© Superstar

A recent Supreme Court copyright ruling on a case involving a designer and a major fashion retailer could also have an important impact on photographers and other creators. Last week during ongoing litigation between fabric designer Unicolors and retailer H&M, the Supreme Court determined that a copyright registration with mistakes is still valid if those errors were unintentional rather than fraudulent. While the case is being sent back to the lower courts for additional proceedings, organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers are celebrating what the Supreme Court Copyright Win means for creatives.

In 2016, designer Unicolor sued retailer H&M over a dress and jacket with a pattern like one the designer had already registered for copyright. A jury originally favored with the designer. However, on the appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court overturned that ruling in part because Unicolor’s original copyright registration contained errors. That decision pushed the case in front of the Supreme Court after Unicolors appealed.

[Read: Why Registering Your Copyright is More Important Than You Think]

When Unicolor filed for copyright in 2015, the company filed for 31 different patterns in one application. However, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII), separate works may only be included on one registration if those works are published first as a collection. Unicolor marketed those 31 fabric designs separately.

The question, then, remained: If a copyright registration contains errors caused by misunderstanding the law and not willful fraud, should that copyright still be valid? The legal team for Unicolors argued that invalidating the copyright for unintentional errors would threaten the rights of copyrights holders because most applicants are not lawyers with full understanding of the law. On the flip-side, lawyers for H&M argued that the law intended for a more rigorous copyright system.

“The important point for our purposes is that a certificate of registration is valid even though it contains inaccurate information, as long as the copyright holder lacked ‘knowledge that it was inaccurate,’” said Justice Stephen Breyer.

[Read: Photography Business and Copyright Trends]

The Supreme Court copyright ruling establishes precedent that the Safe Harbor clause in existing copyright law doesn’t invalidate a copyright if the applicant did not have knowledge of those errors.

However, groups like The Center for Democracy & Technology sided with H&M on the case. According to the LII, the group argued that enforcing an application that is free from errors can help protect copyright holders from legal action.

The case will now go back down to the lower courts. Whether or not Unicolors had knowledge of the mistakes will likely be part of the arguments. Attorney Staci Trager for H&M told Reuters that the fashion retailer was pleased with parts of the verdict. “ After today’s ruling, in order to ‘save its copyright’ Unicolors will have to establish that it had a good faith belief that it misunderstood the legal requirements when it filed its original application, which H&M believes it cannot do,” she said.