In Allen v. Cooper, the Fourth Circuit reversed the Eastern District of North Carolina’s holding that photographer and videographer Frederick Allen was entitled to sue the State of North Carolina for allegedly infringing his copyrights.
Allen, and his production company Nautilus Productions, have been the exclusive photographers of the shipwreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge since 1998. In 2013, Allen found out that the State had allegedly been using his videos online without his consent. While the parties entered into a settlement agreement, requiring the State to compensate Allen for the use of the copyrighted material prior to the settlement date, Allen found out that the State had continued to use Allen’s copyrighted works after the settlement agreement without compensation both online and in print. In addition, the State government passed a law making all photographs and video material of shipwrecks in custody of North Carolina public record and available for use without limitations.
As a result, Allen filed a suit for declaratory judgment, arguing that the statute violates the Takings and Due Process clauses of the Constitution. The State argued that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act did not effectively abrogate state sovereign immunity, and that individuals were still precluded from suing states for copyright infringement. After the lower court found for Allen, the State appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit joined other circuits in holding that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act does not validly abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity.
In March 2020, in a 9-0 opinion, the Supreme Court held that Congress lacked authority to abrogate the states’ sovereign immunity from copyright infringement suits in the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990.