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Supreme Court rules states immune from copyright suits
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Supreme Court rules states immune from copyright suits

The US Supreme Court ruled Monday in Allen v. Cooper that a state cannot be sued for copyright infringement because Congress did not validly abrogate sovereign immunity when it enacted the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA) of 1990.

The case arose after petitioner Fredrick Allen documented the salvage of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, which sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. Allen sued North Carolina when the state published some of his photos and videos without his permission and without payment. North Carolina moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground of state sovereign immunity. Allen countered that the CRCA removed the states’ sovereign immunity in copyright infringement cases.

In general, a federal court may not hear a suit brought by any person against a nonconsenting state. But such suits are permitted if Congress has enacted “unequivocal statutory language” abrogating the States’ immunity from suit and some constitutional provision allows Congress to have thus encroached on the States’ sovereignty.

The court held that Allen’s argument that the CRCA validly abrogated state sovereign immunity was denied by the court’s 1999 decision in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank.

Florida Prepaid acknowledged that Congress’s goal of providing uniform remedies in infringement cases was a ‘proper Article I concern,’ but held that Seminole Tribe precluded Congress from using its Article I powers ‘to circumvent’ the limits sovereign immunity ‘place[s] upon federal jurisdiction…’ For the same reason, Article I cannot support the CRCA.

The CRCA also did not validly abrogate under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment because it lacked the necessary “congruence and proportionality between the  injury to be prevented or remedied and the means adopted to that end.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion for six justices; Justice Clarence Thomas joined the opinion in part; and Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, concurred in the judgment.