Blackbeard Supreme Court, Justices struggle with copyright case.

The pirate Blackbeard is a real historical figure who wrecked his stolen flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. The pirate Captain Hook is a fictional character, the antagonist of the 1904 play Peter Pan. Today, after arguments in a US Supreme Court case about video piracy, the two pirates’ tales merged into one fantastical reality for Frederick Allen, the petitioner.

Allen is suing the state of North Carolina for infringing on his copyrighted imagery of Blackbeard’s shipwreck in newsletters and other materials. While the ship was discovered in 1996, Allen began filming its remains for a private company in 1998. The state has claimed sovereign immunity—the right of a ruler to not be subject to a lawsuit. Now, the justices must decide whether a federal law taking away this general immunity from states in the copyright context is unconstitutional, as North Carolina says, or if Allen’s right that Congress passed the statute to ensure states wouldn’t “trample” on creators.

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“No one thinks they’ll argue in the Supreme Court,” Allen told reporters following the hearing, sounding exhilarated. “The irony of a video piracy case about the pirate Blackbeard’s ship making it all this way!”

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He laughed, adding, “Also, I have an iron hand. How would you top that?”

The petitioner pointed to his left sleeve, where indeed two iron hooks designed for clutching emerged from a black suit, making him look like Captain Hook. The iron apparatus replaces the hand he lost when a diving oxygen tank exploded and caught on fire in his garage in 2011. The accident happened about 13 years after Allen began diving the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and his life became all about pirates and two years before he sued North Carolina for piracy of his intellectual property.

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He didn’t think his case would ever come before the justices but he’s proud to be fighting for creators. If he wins, makers will be able to stops states from plundering their intellectual property.


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