Supreme Court To Hear Dispute Over Blackbeard’s Pirate Ship

REUTERS/Karen Browning/N.C. Department of Cultural Resources

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The flagship of Blackbeard’s notorious pirate fleet, “Queen Anne’s Revenge” (QAR), will feature in an upcoming Supreme Court dispute over copyright infringement and state immunity from lawsuits.

The dispute, which arose when North Carolina passed a state law removing a private company’s copyrights over images and video of the QAR, probes congressional power to set the terms of state government immunity. The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear the case during its next term.

“After Nautilus spent nearly two decades creating works by photographing and filming (at considerable risk) underwater excavation of Blackbeard’s famed Queen Anne’s Revenge, the state brazenly pirated them,” the company told the justices in court filings.

Blackbeard, whose real named is Edward Teach, operated in the Caribbean and British America at the zenith of pirate power in the early 18th century, when sailors and naval shipmen joined pirate ranks in a revolt against the shipping houses and naval captains who dominated trans-Atlantic trade. The events underlying Monday’s case began when Blackbeard and his brigand followers captured a French merchant vessel near the island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles in 1717. Rechristened “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” Blackbeard outfitted the ship with 40 cannons and made it the flagship of his flotilla.

Having declared himself commodore of his fleet, Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charles Town, South Carolina, during the spring of 1718. After that successful engagement, he sailed for North Carolina to obtain a royal pardon from British colonial officials. While en route, “Queen Anne’s Revenge” ran aground at Beaufort, North Carolina. (RELATED: Civil Rights Groups Say This New Evidence Will Sink The Census Citizenship Question)

The wreck of the QAR was not recovered until November 1996. Blackbeard died in pitched combat with a British naval officer called Robert Maynard in November 1718 near Ocracoke, North Carolina.

Mike Davis, president of the Maritime Research Institute, hoists a bronze bell recovered from the wreckage of Blackbeard's pirate ship "Queen Anne's Revenge," on October 29, 1997. (Reuters)

Mike Davis, president of the Maritime Research Institute, hoists a bronze bell recovered from the wreckage of Blackbeard’s pirate ship “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” on October 29, 1997. (Reuters)

After the wreck was located and reviewed, Nautilus obtained copyrights for all videos and still images of the ship. That prompted the North Carolina legislature to enact “Blackbeard’s Law” in 2015, which declared Allen’s copyrights public works that could be freely distributed.

In turn, Allen’s company sued the state in federal court under the 1990 Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA), legislation Congress passed to prevent the states from infringing on federal copyrights. That law lets parties sue states, state agencies, or state officials for copyright infringement, even though the Constitution’s 11th Amendment gives states immunity from certain lawsuits.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state, finding the CRCA unconstitutional under the 11th Amendment, so the company appealed to the high court. The justices will decide whether the Constitution authorizes Congress to strip the states of immunity in copyright disputes. Arguments will likely come late in 2019, with a decision following by June 2020.

The case is No. 18-877 Allen v. Cooper.

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