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In Blackbeard Pirate Ship Case, Supreme Court Scuttles Copyright Claims

Ruling unanimously in favor of states' rights on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a videographer who spent two decades documenting the salvaging of Blackbeard's ship cannot sue the state of North Carolina in federal court for using his videos without his permission.

Although the decision had more to do with mundane copyright law than the law of the high seas, it was a victory for states claiming immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits.

The case before the court began with the 1996 discovery of the sunken remains of a French slave ship captured by the infamous pirate Blackbeard in 1717, and renamed by him The Queen Anne's Revenge. The vessel became the pirate's flagship. With 40 cannons and 300 men, it sailed around the Caribbean and up the U.S. coast. But in 1718, just a year later, it ran aground just a mile off Beaufort, N.C., and sank.

There she lay undisturbed for some 300 years until 1996 when the shipwreck was discovered by a marine salvage company named Intersal, Inc. There was no dispute that under federal and state law, the remains belonged to the state. So North Carolina commissioned the salvage company to take charge of the recovery operation, and the company, in turn, hired Frederick Allen, a local videographer, to document the operation. Which he did, "at considerable risk," for the next two decades — all the while copyrighting his work so that it could not be used without his permission.

Read entire article at NPR