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Piracy on Piracy: Supreme Court Hears Case regarding Copyright in Images of Blackbeard’s Ship

December 12, 2019


Documentarian Frederick Allen has brought a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for copyright infringement, which has recently made its way to the Supreme Court. Allen alleges that his photos of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of the infamous Captain Blackbeard, were improperly used on the Cultural Affairs Department’s website.

While North Carolina had entered into contracts with Allen’s employer that allowed the state to publish some of his works, Allen criticized North Carolina for posting too much material and neglecting to include a watermark and time stamp. In response, the North Carolina legislature passed “Blackbeard’s Law”, which allows the state to use any materials documenting the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Allen then pursued this infringement lawsuit.

Counsel for North Carolina originally argued that a state government was immune from an action for infringement. While the Federal Appeals Court agreed, the Supreme Court questioned whether immunity would unfairly and disproportionately benefit the state while individuals would still be liable for infringement. North Carolina countered by arguing that the proper remedy against a state government in this case should be a court injunction rather than damages.

If North Carolina is found liable for damages, taxpayers throughout the state would suffer as the resources available to them would lose funding. Indeed, as “deeply troubling” as Justice Sotomayer of the Supreme Court found Blackbeard’s Law, she cited precedent for state immunity from patent actions dating from the 1999 Florida Prepaid case.

The Court has yet to release its decision on the matter at the time of writing.


Authors: Sarah Stothart and Daniela Cerrone


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