The case began in 2013, when videographer Frederick Allen sued North Carolina for using his videos of the salvage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, a shipwreck discovered off the North Carolina coast in 1998, without permission. The state claimed “sovereign immunity,” and though they initially lost this argument in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the ruling. Allen appealed one final time, which is how we ended up with today’s decision by The Supreme Court.
In essence, the Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit, ultimately striking down the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA) of 1990. This 30-year-old amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 tried to strip states of their sovereign immunity where copyright was concerned, and it was at the core of Allen’s lawsuit. If states can’t claim sovereign immunity to get out of copyright infringement, then North Carolina had no defense. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit, stating that Congress lacked the authority to take away State’s immunity in the CRCA, passing the buck back to Congress and giving states carte blanche to infringe with impunity (or, as it were, immunity).