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Supreme Court rules states are immune from copyright law

Supreme Court rules states are immune from copyright law

Scale model of an 18th-century tall ship.
Enlarge / A mannequin of the pirate ship Queen Anne’s Revenge within the North Carolina Museum of History.

A state authorities that infringes somebody’s copyright does not have to fret about getting sued, the Supreme Court dominated on Monday. The excessive court docket held that federalism trumps copyright law, successfully giving states a free cross.

The case pitted a North Carolina videographer, Frederick Allen, in opposition to the state of North Carolina. The state was the authorized proprietor of a well-known shipwreck, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was the flagship of legendary pirate Blackbeard till it ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. An organization found the wreck in 1996 and bought a contract from the state to do restoration work. The firm employed Allen to doc these efforts with pictures and movies.

Allen spent greater than a decade documenting the restoration operation, and he retained copyright safety for his work. But North Carolina printed a few of his pictures on its web site with out permission. Eventually, the state agreed to pay Allen $15,000 in compensation. But then North Carolina printed his work on-line a second time with out permission, and Allen sued.

The Tar Heel state argued that Allen’s lawsuit must be dismissed beneath the precept of sovereign immunity. Since the 1990s, a collection of Supreme Court rulings has severely restricted the power of people to sue state governments.

The most immediately related precedent right here was a 1999 ruling saying that people could not sue states for patent infringement. Given the shut connections between copyright and patent law, it wasn’t a lot of a leap for the Supreme Court to carry that the identical logic applies to copyright lawsuits.

The Supreme Court’s 1999 patent ruling was determined by an in depth 5-Four vote, with the court docket’s 5 conservatives extending federalism over the objections of the court docket’s 4 liberals. Two of these liberals, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are nonetheless on the court docket, but on Monday they did not dissent from the 1999 ruling. They nonetheless disagreed with the ruling, they wrote in a concurring opinion, however they thought-about it a binding precedent. So all 9 justices in the end voted—some reluctantly—to defend states from copyright legal responsibility.

Misbehaving states might set off a crackdown

So does this ruling imply that states have a clean test to begin violating copyright law? In the quick time period, the reply appears to be sure. If North Carolina began organizing unlicensed Pirates of the Caribbean screenings across the state, there’s nothing Disney might do about it.

However, within the unlikely occasion that states began brazenly flouting copyright law, Congress may be capable of cross a brand new law that may cross constitutional muster.

The 14th Amendment, handed after the Civil War, offers Congress the facility to guard people in opposition to states violating their rights. Allen argued that it gave Congress the facility to guard individuals in opposition to copyright infringement by states. That’s precisely what Congress was attempting to do when it handed a law in 1990 particularly giving people the facility to sue states for copyright infringement.

But the Supreme Court dominated that this 1990 law did not cross muster beneath the 14th Amendment. One cause was that Congress failed to determine a scientific downside with states violating peoples’ copyrights. A examine commissioned by Congress earlier than passing the law solely discovered a few dozen examples of states violating copyright law. In the court docket’s view, this paltry proof of state infringement meant that it wasn’t a severe sufficient downside to justify impinging on state sovereignty.

But if state copyright infringement grew to become a widespread downside, then the evaluation may change. In a world the place states are routinely and intentionally violating peoples’ copyrights, a law permitting non-public lawsuits in opposition to states could possibly be justified beneath the 14th Amendment.

So whereas states are technically immune from copyright lawsuits, the sensible implications of this ruling could be restricted. There’s no signal that state officers are all for systematically violating peoples’ copyrights. And if some state does begin to routinely violate copyright law, Congress might cross a brand new law permitting non-public lawsuits, and the courts can be extra prone to uphold it.

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