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SCOTUS Sinks Filmmaker’s Copyright Case in Dispute Involving Blackbeard’s Ship


It’s Monday and the U.S. Supreme Court’s doors are still closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop the highest court in the land from issuing an opinion in a copyright case involving Blackbeard‘s (Edward Teach’s) wrecked ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The issue at hand was whether the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (CRCA) did away with state sovereign immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits. The court held that the CRCA did not do so and that Frederick “Rick” Allen’s case had run aground.

Justice Elena Kagan, who delivered the opinion of the Court, set the historical stage in Allen v. Cooper:

In 1717, the pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, captured a French slave ship in the West Indies and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. The vessel became his flagship. Carrying some 40 cannons and 300 men, the Revenge took many prizes as she sailed around the Caribbean and up the North American coast. But her reign over those seas was short-lived. In 1718, the ship ran aground on a sandbar a mile off Beaufort, North Carolina. Blackbeard and most of his crew escaped without harm.

Not so the Revenge. She sank beneath the waters, where she lay undisturbed for nearly 300 years.

In 1996, Florida company Intersal Inc. found the wreckage of Blackbeard’s ship and reached a deal with the State of North Carolina to make a documentary that was to only be broadcast in North Carolina. Rick Allen owned the company that was hired to film the documentary, “recorded videos and took photos of the recovery for more than a decade,” and “registered copyrights in all of his works.”

“When North Carolina published some of Allen’s videos and photos online, Allen sued for copyright infringement,” the court noted. You can watch some of Allen’s work in the YouTube video above.

In a reply brief from early May 2019, lawyers for Allen said that the “problem at issue” is states “infringing federal copyrights without limitation or remedy.” The fight over rights to photos and video of the ship went on for years in North Carolina courts. The District Court agreed with Allen, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Then Allen appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.

But, unfortunately for Allen, the Court said a prior decision in Florida Prepaid “all but prewrote our decision today.”

“That precedent made clear that Article I’s Intellectual Property Clause could not provide the basis for an abrogation of sovereign immunity,” Kagan wrote. “And it held that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment could not support an abrogation on a legislative record like the one here. For both those reasons, we affirm the judgment below.”

You can read the opinion below.

SCOTUS Allen v. Cooper by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.