Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
Published 2: 42 p.m. ET Nov. 5, 2019| Upgraded 2: 52 p.m. ET Nov. 5, 2019
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to rule that North Carolina’s display of a 300- year-old pirate ship’s salvage operation amounts to piracy.
The justices were contacted us to referee a disagreement in between the state and a video production business that has invested twenty years documenting the salvage of the Queen Anne’s Vengeance, which the famous pirate Blackbeard ran aground in 1718.
While the debate focused on the complexities of federal copyright law and states’ sovereign resistance, Blackbeard wasn’t far from the justices’ minds.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated it was “deeply troubling” that after North Carolina was captured with copyrighted material and agreed to pay a fine, the state legislature enacted “Blackbeard’s Law” to transform the salvage effort to public record.
Partner Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said there was “something unseemly” about a state being able to hold its own copyrights while infringing upon others “to our heart’s material.”
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said the copyright violation, which Congress sought to prohibit in 1990, might lead a state like California to reveal films such as Rocky, Spiderman and Groundhog Day on its own streaming service.
” It could be widespread, states duping copyright holders,” added Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Breyer likewise wondered why states haven’t gotten into copyrights and patents more, under the theory that they are immune from being sued. By stealing innovation, he said, states might discover ” the option to all their spending plan problems.”
The shipwreck was discovered in 1996 by Intersal, a personal research and salvage company. It agreed that North Carolina owns the shipwreck, but it contracted with Nautilus Productions, owned by Frederick Allen, to shoot video and images of the salvage.
The state posted some of that product in 2013 as part of its tourism efforts. After accepting pay $15,000 for the infringement, it copied and published more product and then passed the law to legalize its actions.
More than 300 products from the sunken ship are shown at the state-owned North Carolina Maritime Museum, consisting of a 2-ton cannon. The state holds yearly pirate festivals to mark the renowned pirate’s prestige.
Although federal law safeguards such copyrighted product from violation, a federal appeals court agreed with North Carolina that states are immune under the 11 th Modification to the Constitution from some personal copyright violation claims.
That didn’t agree with the videographers, who turned to a play on words in their Supreme Court filing.
” After Nautilus invested almost two years developing works by photographing and shooting (at significant danger) underwater excavation of Blackbeard’s famous Queen Anne’s Vengeance, the state brazenly pirated them,” the company protested.
Its lawyer, Derek Shaffer, informed the court Tuesday that it would have been ” antithetical” to the of the Constitution that states can infringe personal property rights without paying.
” We think that is a constitutional infraction pretty much each time,” Shaffer stated.
However North Carolina’s deputy solicitor general, Ryan Park, stated juries have awarded extreme fines for copyright violation. The state, he said, need to commit its tax dollars to more essential functions, such as schools and disaster relief.
” States,” Park stated, “are merely various.”
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