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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of North Carolina—States Cannot Be Held Financially Liable for Copyright Violations


On March 23rd, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision in the case of Allen v. Cooper. In a 9 to 0 verdict, the nation’s highest court ruled that North Carolina cannot be made to pay for violating the copyright of a photographer who documented the salvage of a famous shipwreck. The court determined that sovereign immunity largely protects states from copyright lawsuits. Here, our Miami copyright litigation attorneys offer an analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision and discuss the implications going forward.

Copyright Case Discussion: Allen v. Cooper

The Facts 

In 1996, a company called Intersal, Inc. located a pirate ship wreck off of the coast of North Carolina. It hired a videographer to document its salvage. The man, Frederick Allen, took extensive videos and photographs over the course of ten years—meticulously documenting the salvage. Eventually, he registered for copyright protection for his work.

The dispute arose when the State of North Carolina began publishing some of his work online without permission. He filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the state, seeking financial compensation for his damage. However, the case that was dismissed on the grounds that individual states are entitled to sovereign immunity—meaning they cannot be held legally liable for copyright violations. Mr. Allen appealed that verdict all of the way to the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court’s Decision 

Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Elena Kagan delivered an opinion in favor of North Carolina. According to her holding, Congress did not possess the legal authority to take away an individual state’s immunity from a copyright lawsuit. It is an important decision and the implications are significant. The Supreme Court has made it clear that individual states are, largely, not bound by copyright laws, at least to the extent that they can be held financially liable.

The Power Rests With the Individual States 

In 1990, federal lawmakers attempted to bind the states to federal copyright rules. In the decision, Justice Kagan noted that Congress clearly intended the states to be bound by copyright law—meaning, in her view, North Carolina committed copyright infringement in the eyes of Congress. However, she also determined that Congress did not have the authority to bind North Carolina or any other state under the law. While copyright holders retain some important rights in battles against state agencies—they can seek a declaratory judgement or a possible injunction—courts do not have the authority to make a state pay monetary damages for copyright infringement. It will be up to the individual states to respect the rights of copyright holders.

Consult With Our Florida Copyright Lawyers Today

At Pike & Lustig, LLP, our copyright litigation attorneys are experienced, results-focused advocates for our clients. If you are involved in a copyright dispute, we are available to help. Call us today to get a confidential, no commitment initial consultation. From our office locations in Miami and West Palm Beach, we are prepared to represent clients throughout South Florida.




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