v32#1 Legally Speaking — Blackbeard Case Challenges States’ Rights on Infringement

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

by Anthony Paganelli  (Western Kentucky University) 

Can the state be sued for copyright infringement?  This is the issue that was presented to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Western Division in 2015 where photographer and videographer Frederick Allen claimed the State of North Carolina infringed on his copyrighted works made during the discovery and documentary of the shipwreck Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was the ship of the infamous pirate Blackbeard that wrecked on June 10, 1718 off the coast of Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.  Allen was the proprietor of the production company Nautilus Productions that maintained exclusive rights to film the project, which began in 1998 after the salvage and research company, Intersal, Inc. discovered the wreckage in 1996 (Copyright Alliance, 2019). 

An agreement between Intersal, Inc. and the State of North Carolina was reached where the state claimed ownership of the property, but Intersal, Inc. would keep the rights and monies received from the documentary video and photographs (Ho, 2019).  Intersal, Inc. and Nautilus Productions agreed to document the project through video and photographs.  According to Ho (2019), the agreement allowed North Carolina to “publish accounts and other research documents relating to the artifacts, site area, and project operations for noncommercial educational or historical purposes.”  Allen also obtained federal copyright for the videos and photographs used to document the salvage. 

However, Allen claimed the State of North Carolina posted a significant amount of material on the Cultural Affairs Department website.  In 2013, Allen and the state settled on a $15,000 settlement from North Carolina to Allen and the state agreed to place a time stamp and watermark on copyrighted materials posted on the website.  Despite this settlement, Allen later alleged that the state continued to use too much copyrighted materials, which he filed a suit against the state for $8 million for using several hours of videos and over 2,000 photos. 

Due to the allegations, the State of North Carolina passed a law “to clarify that photographs and video recordings of derelict vessels or shipwrecks are public records when in the custody of North Carolina agencies;  and to provide that certain merchandise credits are not deemed abandoned property.” The law was approved on August 18, 2015 that further stated, “All photographs, video recordings, or other documentary materials of a derelict vessel or shipwreck or its contents, relics, artifacts, or historic materials in the custody of any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions shall be a public record pursuant to G.S. 132-1.  There shall be no limitation of the use of or no requirement to alter any such photograph, video recordings, or other documentary material, and any such provision in any agreement, permit, or license shall be void and unenforceable as a matter of public policy” (NC Legislature, 2015). The legislation has been called “Blackbeard’s Law.” 

U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle allowed Allen to continue his case against the state because “Blackbeard’s Law” was invalid;  therefore, the state had violated federal copyright laws. Due to the suit, the State of North Carolina submitted a motion to dismiss based on the grounds of sovereign immunity, which the motion was denied in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the motion and stated that the state was immune from the suit filed by Allen (Wasserman, 2019). 

Sovereign Immunity

The State of North Carolina referred to the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which stated, “The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens or another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.”  The amendment has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide immunity to states and their agencies from a lawsuit for remedy by any court, for violating federal laws, which in this case Allen has sued the state for violating the U.S. Copyright Law (Wasserman, 2019). 

Despite this immunity support from the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress does have the power to change this by abrogating immunity.  Allen’s argument is the Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment that allows Congress exclusive power to enforce all copyright laws no matter immunity.  According to Wasserman, “Copyrights cannot be ‘secure’ or ‘exclusive’ if Congress cannot reach and regulate all potential infringers, including states, and if states cannot be held liable for their infringement.”  Based on this argument, the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 is an issue that will be interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court when the arguments are heard. 

The Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 states, “Amends Federal copyright law to provide that any State, State instrumentality, or officer or employee of the State or State instrumentality is liable to the same extent as any nongovernmental entity for: (1) copyright infringement…Denies sovereign immunity to any State for such violations and provides the same remedies as are available against other private or public entities, including attorney’s fees” (H.R. 3045, 1990).  The liability can be financial remedies of up to $150,000 for each infringement case. Since this act, a legislative record demonstrated a substantial amount of copyright infringement issues by states, which Allen has stated as a reason that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act pertains to their case against the state.

The argument for the State of North Carolina stated, “Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity only when a constitutional provision allows abrogation through express words or unsurmountable implication.  Neither appears in the text or history of the copyright clause” (Wasserman, 2019). The state contended that copyright infringement conduct by states are not the same as being unconstitutional. In other words, the law can determine whether the infringement was intentional and there was no other remedies for the copyright holder in order to abrogate immunity.  Wasserman added, “Congress failed to carefully tailor its remedies to target actual constitutional violations by States.” 

The arguments were presented to the U.S. Supreme Court on November 5, 2019.  Until the Supreme Court rules on whether states can be sued, the copyright case is being monitored, because the decision could impact numerous states and state agencies.  A state agency would include state funded academic and public libraries. 

Library’s Concerns

The library has an interest in this copyright infringement case, because most libraries and archives are funded and operated through government agencies.  These libraries impacted by this case are academic libraries and archives, as well as museums. The reason for concerns from these state funded and operated libraries and archives is the protection of sovereign immunity.  According to the brief filed by the American Library Association, Association of College and Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, Society of American Archivists, and software preservation network on September 27, 2019, the elimination of sovereign immunity would impact libraries that rely on sovereign immunity in regards to the fair use activities and the preservation of large collections of copyrighted resources and materials. 

A reason that the elimination of sovereign immunity would impact libraries is the protection libraries, archives, and museums currently have against any damages liabilities due to copyright infringement, which they have noted in the brief that they do not abuse the copyright laws.  However, the organizations understand the financial devastation of damage liabilities that can be involved should copyright holders have the ability to file suit against a state-run library, archive, or museum. The issue of infringement suit is the stipulation that the copyright holder could seek remedies of up to $150,000 per copyrighted item 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2), which libraries and archives have spent approximately $30 billion on copyrighted material that copyright holders could seek remedies if they deem the institutions are in violation of copyright infringement.  If found liable, some libraries and archives with large collections could face millions in remedies. 

The concern is that state funded libraries and archives utilized the Copyright Act’s fair use right under 17 U.S.C. § 107, which libraries use in the effort to digitally preserve the works within their respective collections.  The urgency of digitally preserving copyrighted works are due to the constant threat of natural disasters and the wear of items over time. In addition, 17 U.S.C. § 108 specifies the limitations for preserving works in regards to photocopying, but not the details of digital preservation. 

Libraries argue that the removal of sovereign immunity will prevent libraries from preserving cultural works, which could be lost due to natural disasters, time, or other issues.  Furthermore, libraries have been respectful of copyright laws and educate faculty, students, and patrons, and would continue to obey to copyright regulations through their efforts to preserve important cultural works. 

The Main Fact

The copyright infringement case has been inspirational for numerous journalist to utilize their creative ideas for innovative ways to implement pirate stereotypical headlines and puns into their works.  However, most have excluded the most interesting fact of the copyright infringement case, which involves the name of Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s RevengeQueen Anne was the reigning monarch in Great Britain from 1707-1717.  During her reign, the British Parliament approved the “Queen Anne Statute” that is…wait for it…wait for it…the world’s first copyright act!


Brief for American Library Association, et al.as Amici Curiae, Allen v. Cooper, (2019).  Retrieved from https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-877/117307/2019 0927135129705_38484%20pdf%20Band.pdf.

Chung, A.  (2019).  U.S. Supreme Court justices navigate video piracy over Blackbeard’s ship. Reuters.  Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-blackbeard/u-s-supreme-court-justices-navigate-video-piracy-case-over-blackbeards-ship-idUSKBN1XF2AF.

Copyright Alliance.  (2019).  Allen v. Cooper.  Retrieved from https://copyrightalliance.org/copyright-law/copyright-cases/allen-v-cooper/.

Ho, Y.  (2019, Nov 6).  Justices ponder rights to Blackbeard salvage images.  Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved from https://headtopics.com/us/yo-ho-ho-justices-ponder-rights-to-blackbeard-ship-salvage-images-9342337.

H.R. 3045 Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (1990).  Congress.gov. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/101st-congress/house-bill/3045.

Legal Information Institute.  (2019).  28 U.S. Code § 1498.  Patent and copyright cases.  Cornell University. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/1498.

North Carolina Legislature.  (2015). House Bill 184 Session Law 2015-218.  Retrieved from https://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Bills/House/PDF/H184v7.pdf.

Young, J. C.  (2011).  Copyright in memoriam.  Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, 13(3), 507-541.

Wasserman, H. M.  (2019).  Aaarrrgument preview: Copyright and sovereign immunity in Davy Jones’ locker. SCOTUSBlog.  Retrieved from https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/10/aaarrrgument-preview-copyright-and-sovereign-immunity-in-davy-jones-locker/.  


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