This week (March 23, 2020), in ALLEN ET AL. v. COOPER, GOVERNOR OF NORTH CAROLINA, ET AL the United States Supreme Court ruled that US states cannot be liable for copyright infringement due to sovereign immunity.
In 1996, a salvage company called Intersal discovered the wreck of a pirated slave ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, that ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. Intersal was under a salvage contract from the legal owner of the wreck, which was the State of North Carolina.* Intersal contracted with videographer Frederick Allen to document its efforts. Allen took photos and videos of the recovery for more than a decade and registered copyrights in his works. (Presumably their contract did not provide for an assignment of copyrights that would be typical in such a contract, but those facts were not outlined in the Supreme Court decision.) When North Carolina published some of Allen’s videos and photos online, Allen sued for copyright infringement. The state asserted sovereign immunity as a defense.
US states are immune from legal liability of most kinds in civil lawsuits. However, there are various exceptions. That is why, when one sees lawsuits against state agencies for negligence or other civil claims, they are usually styled with an individual state governor or other official as a defendant. In the US, sovereign immunity is a complex doctrine, given our federal system includes states, which exercise basic sovereign powers, and the federal government, which only has limited powers, the two of which often overlap, and where each kind of authority enjoys some level of sovereign immunity, under doctrine or statute.
The question in this lawsuit was which doctrine trumped: sovereign immunity, or copyright law, as reflected in a federal law called the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act. The US Constitution Article I, §8, gives Congress authority to grant copyrights. The CRCA, in turn, relies on that power, saying that for claims of copyright infringement, a state “shall not be immune, under the Eleventh Amendment [or] any other doctrine of sovereign immunity, from suit in Federal court.”17 U. S. C. §511(a). The Supreme Court unanimously decided that the CRCA was unconstitutional to the extent it authorized a claim in Allen, because Congress lacked constitutional authority to take away the state’s immunity. The court’s opinion left the door open for Congress to amend the CRCA to make it constitutional.
In this opinion, the Court relied on Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U. S. 627, which invalidated provisions of the Patent Remedy Act, a law allowing for patent infringement claims, similar to the CRCA for copyright. When weighing congressional authority against sovereign immunity, “There must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.” City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507, 520. In Florida Prepaid, the Court defined the scope of unconstitutional patent infringement as “intentional conduct for which there is no adequate state remedy.” In contrast, most copyright infringement claims have no requirement of intent, though some kinds of damages can be enhanced if infringement is willful.
* If you want to read about ownership fights under maritime law, and the technological challenges of shipwreck diving, try Shadow Divers.