Copyright holders may take infringement legal actions against anyone who uses their work without permission and violates the copyright protection over their creations. But a recent US Supreme Court decision addressing a sunken pirate ship gives states, including Florida, the ability to violate this intellectual property protection.
This case involves a production company that filmed the salvaging of the remains of an 18th Century pirate ship, Queen Ann’s Revenge, captained by Blackbeard. The company filmed video and still images of the salvaging in North Carolina and registered this work with the US copyright office.
The company accused the state of North Carolina of posting some of these images on its website. The state reached a settlement agreement with the company and took the images off their site.
But that state’s department of natural and cultural resources posted these videos. Then, in response to the production company’ lawsuit, the North Carolina legislature passed a law designating photographs, videos and other documentary materials of shipwrecks as a public record exempt from copyright protection.
The US Constitution prohibits federal courts from ruling lawsuits from citizens against states. In a 1999 case involving Florida, the US Supreme Court struck down Congressional efforts to reduce state immunity from intellectual property suits under the 11th Amendment.
In its decision issued last month, the Supreme Court relied on this 21-year-old ruling. Additionally, the majority decision held that the 14th Amendment’s protections against taking property without due process of law was not absolute. A copyright infringement must be intentional or reckless and lack any corrective remedy to fall within that amendment’s protection.
The Court also noted that Congress may be able to reduce state lawsuit protection for clear violations of due process. In the meantime, however, copyright holders may see their creativity abducted by state governments.
Even with this ruling, federal and state laws contain other protections for intellectual property, especially against private entities. An attorney can help individuals and business safeguard their creations.