- Nov 16, 2018
Supreme Court rules states are immune from copyright law
A state government that infringes someone's copyright doesn't have to worry about getting sued, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday. The high court held that federalism trumps copyright law, effectively giving states a free pass.
The case pitted a North Carolina videographer, Frederick Allen, against the state of North Carolina. The state was the legal owner of a famous shipwreck, the Queen Anne's Revenge. It was the flagship of legendary pirate Blackbeard until it ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. A company discovered the wreck in 1996 and got a contract from the state to do recovery work. The company hired Allen to document those efforts with photos and videos.
Allen spent more than a decade documenting the recovery operation, and he retained copyright protection for his work. But North Carolina published some of his photos on its website without permission. Eventually, the state agreed to pay Allen $15,000 in compensation. But then North Carolina published his work online a second time without permission, and Allen sued.
So does this ruling mean that states have a blank check to start violating copyright law? In the short term, the answer seems to be yes. If North Carolina started organizing unlicensed Pirates of the Caribbean screenings around the state, there's nothing Disney could do about it.