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Was a pirate's treasure pirated? Ongoing suit says NC stole Blackbeard footage.

A 3,000-pound anchor from Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge is recovered on May 27, 2011, from the ocean where it has been since 1718 in Beaufort Inlet. N.C. Crew member Mitchel Gilliland, right, helped guide the anchor aboard the Dan K. Moore.
A 3,000-pound anchor from Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge is recovered on May 27, 2011, from the ocean where it has been since 1718 in Beaufort Inlet. N.C. Crew member Mitchel Gilliland, right, helped guide the anchor aboard the Dan K. Moore. ROBERT WILLETT-rwillett@newsobserver.com

In pirate lore, Blackbeard ranks among the foulest criminals of the sea, known for keeping lit candles under his hat to frighten enemies with a smoking face.

But in a lawsuit that persists in federal court, a documentary filmmaker accuses North Carolina of committing a modern form of treasure looting: using his copyrighted underwater footage without permission.

"Pirates come in many forms," attorneys for Fayetteville-based videographer Frederick Allen said in court documents. "Defendants did not sail into the sandbars of infringement by mistake."

This week, attorneys for North Carolina asked federal appeals Judge Paul Niemeyer of the Fourth Circuit in Richmond to dismiss Allen's suit, arguing that the state is immune from such complaints and that it posted small snippets of Blackbeard's wrecked ship for the sake of public good.

"This case involves North Carolina’s effort to educate the public about a significant episode in the state’s history: the pirate Blackbeard’s 18th-century exploits off the North Carolina coast," attorneys argued in court filings.

A decision is expected within two to six months.

Perhaps the world's best-known pirate, Edward Teach ranks among North Carolina's most storied denizens, claimed by coastal communities from Bath to Ocracoke. Better known as Blackbeard, he captured a French vessel in the early 18th century and christened it the Queen Anne's Revenge, outfitting it with 40 guns.

After running aground in 1718, shortly before Blackbeard's demise, the ship fell out of history's view until its discovery about a mile offshore from Fort Macon in 1996.

After the ship's discovery, the state allowed Frederick's Nautilus Productions to film the excavation. Nautilus' website explains that its stock footage and photographs have been seen on CNN, The Travel Channel, National Geographic and many other places.

Legal wranglings are extensive in this case and also involve Intersal, the company that discovered the wreckage. But in 2015, Allen sued Gov. Pat McCrory and various state officials over a conspiracy to "steal" his footage.

As part of a settlement agreement, the state had already paid him $15,000 for previous copyrights infringements and then posted more footage on YouTube, his lawsuit states. Afterward, Allen's suit said, plaintiffs for the state lobbied to pass "Blackbeard's Law," which designated all shipwreck footage as public record.

In 2017 court filings, the state said it is no longer posting Allen’s work. It has argued that its settlement with Allen allowed for mutual promotion of Blackbeard's story and that state government officials are immune in lawsuits over this type of conduct.

"The Department displayed snippets of Allen’s copyrighted works for a noncommercial purpose," the state said in court filings, "to educate the public about an important chapter in North Carolina history."

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

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