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Blackbeard’s Ship Comes to the US Supreme Court

This is an undated photo of a portrait of pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard's real name is thought to be either Edward Teach, Edward Thatch or Tache. (AP Photo)
This is an undated photo of a portrait of pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard's real name is thought to be either Edward Teach, Edward Thatch or Tache. (AP Photo)
Blackbeard's Ship Comes to the US Supreme Court
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The pirate known as Blackbeard terrorized the Atlantic coast of North America in the early 1700s. In a few months, the United States Supreme Court will hear a case related to Blackbeard’s ship. The case involves a filmmaker who claims the rights to images of the ship belong to him, not the state of North Carolina.

Here is what happened. Back in 1718, Blackbeard was sailing a ship named the Queen Anne’s Revenge, after a former queen of England. One day the Queen Anne’s Revenge and a smaller ship went into a harbor now known as Beaufort Inlet, in North Carolina. The water was not very deep, and the ships ran into the sand. (Blackbeard may have grounded the ships on purpose, but that is another story.)

Blackbeard abandoned the Queen Anne’s Revenge, along with a number of its crew members. He and a few of his favorite pirates escaped with valuable treasure.

A few months later, Blackbeard was killed by British forces. And, in time, the Queen Anne’s Revenge disappeared under the water. In U.S. law, the sunken ship and everything on it belongs to the state of North Carolina.

The legal battle

Jump to the year 1996. A private company found the remains of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The company used divers and archeologists to explore the wreckage and bring the artifacts to the surface.

A media company, Nautilus Productions, took pictures and videos of the recovery effort. The co-owner of the media company, Frederick Allen, received federal copyright protection over the images. In other words, U.S. national law says no one can use the images without getting the company’s permission and paying Nautilus.

Yet North Carolina state officials used some of the images on YouTube and a state agency website without permission – some would claim the officials “pirated” them. The state government also passed a law to make some of the images into public records, free for anyone to use.

In answer, Nautilus co-owner Frederick Allen brought legal action against the state of North Carolina.

At issue is whether states must pay damages for copyright violations. Historically, the U.S. Constitution and some earlier court cases have protected states against lawsuits. But in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing states to be sued for illegal copying.

A lower court said the 1990 law is not constitutional. Congress did not have the power to make such a law, the lower court said. As a result, a judge dismissed Allen’s case.

So now, Allen is taking his argument to the U.S. Supreme Court. He says states are breaking federal law and then refusing to pay damages for their violations. He also says people who create original work need a way to object when states ignore copyright laws.

The Supreme Court has agreed only to hear the case. The justices will likely make a ruling on it next year.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story based on a report by the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

pirate - n. someone who attacks and steals from a ship at sea

harbor - n. a part of the ocean that is next to land and that is protected and deep enough to provide safety for ships

abandon - v. to leave and never return to

artifact - n. object that was made by people in the past

sue - v. to use a legal process by which you try to get a court of law to force a person, company, or organization that has treated you unfairly or hurt you in some way to give you something or to do something