US Supreme Court Rules States Are Immune to Copyright Infringement Lawsuits

The US Supreme Court has ruled that if a state infringes on copyright, they cannot be sued for damages. There was no dissenting opinions.

Blackbeard is certainly a well known classic pirate figure. Of course, it is unlikely that he knew he would help win a copyright infringement lawsuit many years after his death. Frederick Allen, a videographer, took photo’s and video of the recovery effort of Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The problem is that some of the pictures were used by the state of North Carolina without his permission. So, he sued the state for copyright infringement. The case made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the decision, the court ruled that government cannot be sued for copyright infringement. From ArsTechnica:

The Tar Heel state argued that Allen’s lawsuit should be dismissed under the principle of sovereign immunity. Since the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court rulings has severely limited the ability of individuals to sue state governments.

The most directly relevant precedent here was a 1999 ruling saying that individuals couldn’t sue states for patent infringement. Given the close connections between copyright and patent law, it wasn’t much of a leap for the Supreme Court to hold that the same logic applies to copyright lawsuits.

The Supreme Court’s 1999 patent ruling was decided by a close 5-4 vote, with the court’s five conservatives extending federalism over the objections of the court’s four liberals. Two of those liberals, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are still on the court, yet on Monday they didn’t dissent from the 1999 ruling. They still disagreed with the ruling, they wrote in a concurring opinion, but they considered it a binding precedent. So all nine justices ultimately voted—some reluctantly—to shield states from copyright liability.

So, if you plan on operating a massive open BitTorrent tracker trying to pirate anything while operating within the US, you better hope you are operated by a state government first. Otherwise, you might get in real legal trouble.

As Arstechnica points out, this precedent can always change at the federal level. After all, the US government can technically pass legislation limiting what states can and cannot pirate.

Either way, this is certainly a rather funky ruling in the grand scheme of things. The US is known to simply bow to the whims of major corporate copyright lobbyists. So, it’s not really keeping in the stereotype that someone in the US can find themselves immune to copyright infringement lawsuits – legally speaking that is.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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