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North Carolina wins court piracy case over Blackbeard’s ship

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sided unanimously Monday with North Carolina in a copyright fight with a company that has documented the salvage of the pirate Blackbeard’s ship off the state’s coast.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court that the company’s copyright infringement lawsuit, which she called “a modern form of piracy,” could not go forward because the Constitution generally protects states from lawsuits in federal courts.

The 21st century dispute arose over the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground more than 300 years ago.

The ship is the property of the state, but under an agreement, North Carolina-based Nautilus Productions has for nearly two decades documented the ship’s salvage. In the process, the company copyrighted photos and videos.

North Carolina first posted photos on a state website, and later put videos on a YouTube channel and included a photo in a newsletter. Nautilus sued in federal court, but the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, ruled North Carolina could not be sued.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that states could not be sued in federal court over patent infringements. Patent and copyright protections come from the same constitutional provision that outlines Congress’ powers. Kagan noted that the earlier case, known as Florida Prepaid, “all but prewrote our decision today.”

Among artifacts that have been brought to the surface are cannons and the anchor, but roughly 40 percent of the Queen Anne’s Revenge remains on the ocean floor. The ship was sailing under the French flag when Blackbeard, the Englishman Edward Teach, captured the vessel in the fall of 1717 and made it his flagship.

The following year, Blackbeard was sailing north from Charleston, South Carolina, when the ship went aground in what’s now called Beaufort Inlet. Blackbeard abandoned the ship. Five months later, members of the Royal Navy of Virginia killed Blackbeard at Ocracoke Inlet.

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