The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that it could not override a state’s sovereign immunity from certain copyright infringement claims in a North Carolina dispute about footage of the Blackbeard pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Rick Allen’s Nautilus Productions sued the state of North Carolina for posting its photos and videos of the ship online without permission. Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground in Beaufort in 1718 and was discovered in 1996. The video production company was documenting the salvaging of the shipwreck and Allen had registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Much of the high court’s opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, focuses on technical copyright law. It acknowledges Allen’s broader argument that highlights a history of states stealing copyrighted material and then claiming sovereign immunity as a defense, but points to Congress to solve the issue.
Congress previously passed the Copyright Clarification Remedy Act (CRCA), but Kagan pointed out in the opinion that it likely did not understand certain rules at the time that would have supported Allen’s argument. “But going forward, Congress will know those rules,” the document states. “And under them, if it detects violations of due process, then it may enact a proportionate response. That kind of tailored statute can effectively stop States from behaving as copyright pirates. Even while respecting constitutional limits, it can bring digital Blackbeards to justice.”
Allen told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday that he was saddened by the decision. “The state of North Carolina routinely and vigorously enforces its own copyrights, yet simultaneously hides behind sovereign immunity when it violates the intellectual property rights of its own citizens,” he told the magazine. “The Constitution and Congress of the United States of America call for a different result.”
The state initially paid the video production company a $15,000 settlement in 2013 and agreed not to use the copyrighted material in the future, but eventually began using it again and subsequently passed “Blackbeard’s Law” which converted the work to public record, according to the court documents.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said Monday he was pleased with the high court’s opinion. “In today’s ruling, the Court unanimously upheld longstanding precedents recognizing that all States retain certain core aspects of sovereignty, including sovereign immunity from copyright lawsuits,” he wrote in a statement.
“My office looks forward to continuing to work with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as it continues to recover, preserve, and educate the public about Blackbeard’s historically important shipwreck. I also want to congratulate and thank Ryan Park, who argued this case and has since been appointed North Carolina’s Solicitor General, for all his hard work.” Read the full opinion below.