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There’s Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade or the 2000 “hanging chad” election, but, for the most part, cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are pretty dull.
Aside from criminal appeals, the issues generally run around things like bills of lading, minutiae of contracts and the Rule in Shelley’s case. Trust us: It’s like sitting through an eight-hour PBS news documentary with no wildlife and no pledge drive. The justices earn their pay.
Which is why the state of North Carolina did the Honorable Justices a service: They’ve served them up a case with a pirate ship in it — Blackbeard’s pirate ship, in fact.
An appeal on that case is supposed to land on the justices’ bench in October. The downside is, it’s North Carolina that seems to be behaving like buccaneers.
These are the facts: In 1996, a 1700s shipwreck was discovered in Beaufort Inlet. It turned out to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship, which ran aground in 1718.
It was pretty big news, likely to draw a lot of attention. Pirates are good for tourism.
Thus, the state hired a Florida-based video production company to document the tricky underwater excavation. The team agreed — as long as it kept the copyright on its footage.
So far, so good. The state, however, began running video clips of the wreck on TV and using still photos, without paying the video company. Unfair, cried the Florida guys, and they took the Honorable Tar Heels to court.
Now, we tend to sympathize with photographers. These are perilous times for creative types, with the opening up of the Brave New Digital World. Interlopers can grab your video — or your photos, or your song, or your writing — and repost it. They ought to be required to pay for it if it’s copyrighted. Otherwise, said creative types can’t make a living.
The way the case stands, though, a federal appeals court held for North Carolina, arguing the state has what’s known as sovereign immunity. That’s a rule dating back to medieval English law, which essentially means that the king cannot be sued.
That’s a good rule, most of the time. Think about it, though. If North Carolina or Uncle Sam can grab your selfies or hurricane photos, what’s left? The old joke goes that no one’s life or property is safe while the legislature is in session. This reading of sovereign immunity would seem to stretch that to 24/7.
We think people who copyrighted what they made should be paid for its use. In a better world, the sides would sit down with a mediator and agree on fair compensation.
Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee the Supremes will decide things sensibly. In which case (and yes, you saw it coming) — arrr!