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Supreme Court Hears Case Involving Blackbeard's Ship, State And Property Rights


The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that involved both a 300-year-old pirate ship and a contemporary fight between two powerful forces in American law. Jacob Goldstein from our Planet Money podcast explains.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The ship belonged to the pirate Blackbeard. It sunk off the coast of North Carolina in the early 18th century. The person who brought the case to the Supreme Court is an underwater videographer named Rick Allen. Allen started filming the excavation of Blackbeard's ship in the late 1990s.

RICK ALLEN: The first time I went down, it was like climbing into a washing machine, filling it with tea or coffee and then turning it on. There's a lot of current. The visibility's terrible. So I didn't see a lot of the wreck. I just pretty much hung on for dear life.

GOLDSTEIN: But year after year for more than a decade, Allen kept diving and filming there.

ALLEN: We're probably talking about 1,000, 2,000 hours on the wreck site.

GOLDSTEIN: The rights to the ship were owned by the state of North Carolina. Rick Allen had signed a deal where he would pay for the filming out of his own pocket, and he would own the copyright to the footage so he could license it to museums and for documentaries. The legal trouble started in 2013 when, Allen says, the state started posting his pictures and videos without his permission. The fight wound up in the Supreme Court this fall.


JOHN ROBERTS: We'll hear argument next in Case 18-877, Allen v. Cooper.

GOLDSTEIN: Allen's argument relied heavily on a law Congress passed in 1990. It was called the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act. And the law said that federal copyright law applies to state governments just the same way it applies to everybody else. In other words, if a state posts your videos without permission, you can sue the state for damages just like you can sue anybody else.

North Carolina's counterargument came down to this. That federal law Allen is relying on - it is unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court should strike it down. The state's lawyer, Ryan Park, articulated the basis for North Carolina's case in the first three words of his argument.


RYAN PARK: State sovereign immunity is a fundamental feature of our Constitution's structure.

GOLDSTEIN: State sovereign immunity - that's it. That is North Carolina's whole case, and it is a pretty strong case - strong enough to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. So here is what state sovereign immunity means. State just means any state in the union. Sovereign immunity means in most circumstances, you are not allowed to sue the federal government or state governments for money damages.

Ryan Park, North Carolina's lawyer, suggested that sovereign immunity really does come down to money.


PARK: I think the important understanding that the founders had is that when you sue a sovereign, on the opposite side of the judgment are the people and the people's money.

GOLDSTEIN: When you're suing the state, you are suing the people. You're suing for taxpayer dollars. And Park is saying we, the people of North Carolina - not the federal government - should be allowed to decide when and whether we are on the hook for damages in court.

In the end, this case comes down to a fight between states' rights - North Carolina's sovereign immunity - and property rights - Rick Allen's copyrights on the videos of Blackbeard's ship. A decision in the case is expected sometime before the end of the court's term next June.

Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAWN AVERY'S "ZUSESKA (SNAKE) BATTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
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