Facts of the Case

Provided by Oyez

In 1996, a private researcher hired petitioner Frederick Allen and his company, Nautilus Productions, LLC, to document the recently discovered shipwreck of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground at Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1718. Allen documented the shipwreck for nearly twenty years in photographs and videos and registered his works with the U.S. Copyright Office.


At some point before October 2013, the state of North Carolina posted various of the copyrighted works of Allen online without his permission. In October 2013, the state and other involved parties entered into a settlement agreement with Allen and his company, paying him for the infringement of his works and agreeing not to infringe the works going forward. At the time, the state removed its infringing works, but shortly afterward, it again posted and published Allen’s works. The state then passed “Blackbeard’s Law,” which purportedly converted Allen’s works into “public record” materials that the state could use freely.


Allen sued the state for copyright infringement, and the state moved to dismiss on the grounds of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Allen argued that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (CRCA)—which defines potential infringers of copyright to include “any State, any instrumentality of a State, and any officer of a State or instrumentality of a State acting in his or her official capacity”—abrogates state sovereign immunity for copyright infringement claims.


The district court denied the motion to dismiss, finding persuasive Allen’s arguments regarding the CRCA’s abrogation of sovereign immunity. The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that Congress lacked authority to abrogate state sovereign immunity via the CRCA.


  1. Did Congress validly abrogate state sovereign immunity via the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, which allows authors of original expression to sue states who infringe their federal copyrights?


  1. Congress lacked the authority to abrogate state sovereign immunity from copyright infringement suits. Justice Elena Kagan authored the opinion for the Court unanimous in the judgment. First, the Court considered whether, in the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, Congress had enacted “unequivocal statutory language” abrogating the states’ immunity from lawsuits. The Court concluded that it had. Next, the Court considered whether Congress had authority to do so. Allen argued that the Intellectual Property Clause (art. I § 8, cl. 8) of the U.S. Constitution authorized the exercise of that power, but the Court rejected that theory in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Board, 527 U.S. 627 (1999), and stare decisis requires following that precedent unless there is a “special justification” to overturn it. Neither does Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment give Congress the authority to abrogate state sovereign immunity from copyright infringement suits. For Congress’s action to fall within its Section 5 authority, “there must be a congruence and proportionality between the injury to be prevented and the means adopted to that end.” In the absence of any evidence of this nature, the CRCA fails this test. Thus, Congress lacked authority to abrogate state sovereign immunity in that Act.

    Justice Clarence Thomas joined in part and authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas agreed with the majority’s conclusion but noted two disagreements. First, he argue that the Court need not “special justification” to overrule precedent; rather, the Court must correct its error if the prior decision is “demonstrably erroneous.” But the present case does not even meet that lower standard. Second, he declined to join the majority’s discussion regarding future copyright legislation.

    Justice Stephen Breyer authored an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. Justice Breyer pointed out the inherent unfairness to creators and artists that arises from the Court’s decision but concurred in the judgment because the Court’s precedent in Florida Prepaid “controls this case.”

    Further analysis of the oral argument available at Oral Argument 2.0: https://argument2.oyez.org/2019/allen-v-cooper/