N.C. pirate ship copyright dispute sails before Supreme Court.


Byline: Correy Stephenson, BridgeTower Media Newswires

A sunken pirate ship off the coast of North Carolina that triggered a copyright dispute with implications for state sovereign immunity will be the subject of oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1996, the Queen Anne's Revenge was discovered off the coast of North Carolina. Originally a French ship, Blackbeard captured the vessel in the fall of 1717 and made it his flagship. The infamous pirate (born Edward Teach) abandoned the ship the following year after it ran aground about a mile off the coast of Beaufort.

While the ship is the property of the state, Nautilus Productions and owner Rick Allen spent two decades documenting the ship's salvage and recovery. The company copyrighted photos and videos of the ship.

Allen sued in December 2015, alleging that the copyrights were violated when the state posted six videos to various websites, including a state-operated YouTube channel, and also used a photograph in a maritime museum newsletter.

A federal district court denied the state's motion to dismiss the suit, relying on the federal Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA), a 1990 law that permits private parties to sue states for violations of federal copyright law.

North Carolina appealed, arguing that the law unconstitutionally abrogated states' rights and that the state was immune from suit. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, dismissing the suit.

The 4th Circuit found that lawmakers had failed to properly rely upon Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which allows Congress to abrogate sovereign immunity, when enacting the statute, citing similar decisions from other circuits.

"Not only did Congress not invoke its authority under 5, it also did not, as required, limit the scope of the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act to enforcement of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment," Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote. "Rather, in abrogating sovereign immunity, Congress used language that sweeps so broadly that the Act cannot be deemed a congruent and proportional response to the Fourteenth Amendment injury with which it was confronted."

Allen filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, and the justices agreed to hear the dispute.

On Nov. 5, the Court will hear oral argument to answer the question of whether Congress validly abrogated state sovereign immunity via the CRCA in providing remedies for authors of original expression whose federal copyrights are infringed by...

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