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The U.S. Supreme Court said copyright owners can’t sue for damages when a state government pilfers their work, ruling against businesses in a case stemming from the wreckage of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship.

The justices on Monday unanimously said states are protected by sovereign immunity. The court threw out a 1990 federal law that attempted to authorize lawsuits, ruling that the measure went beyond Congress’ constitutional authority.

Justice Elena Kagan said the court was bound by a 1990 ruling that precluded lawsuits seeking patent damages from states. That ruling “all but prewrote our decision today,” Kagan wrote for the court.

Kagan said the court needs “special justification” to overrule a precedent. She invoked “stare decisis,” the legal doctrine that could become increasingly important as the conservative-controlled court considers toppling its own rulings on abortion rights and in other areas.

The justices issued opinions online Monday, and not from the bench, breaking with longstanding tradition because of the coronavirus outbreak. The last time the court had ruled in an argued case without taking the bench was the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision.

The copyright ruling is a defeat for Frederick Allen, whose video company has been documenting the salvage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, the pirate ship that sank off the North Carolina coast in 1718. Allen sought to sue the state for posting some of his videos online and using an image in print materials.

Oracle Corp., News Corp.’s Dow Jones and trade groups representing the software and music industries all backed Allen, urging the Supreme Court to allow copyright suits against states.

The ruling extends a line of Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted the Constitution’s 11th Amendment as shielding states from many kinds of lawsuits.

Allen and his allies argued that a separate part of the Constitution gave Congress the power to lift that sovereign immunity when it comes to intellectual property. The Constitution authorizes Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

He also argued that the measure was a legitimate use of Congress’ power to protect property rights under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The case is Allen v. Cooper, 18-877.

(Updates with excerpts from opinion in third and fourth paragraphs)

2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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