Videographer sues NC over rights to Blackbeard shipwreck footage

A 3,000-pound anchor from what is believed to be the wreck of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, is recovered from the ocean in Beaufort Inlet in 2011.
A 3,000-pound anchor from what is believed to be the wreck of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, is recovered from the ocean in Beaufort Inlet in 2011. rwillett@newsobserver.com

A battle over Blackbeard’s sunken treasures has moved from beneath the murky Atlantic waters off the North Carolina coast to courtrooms inland.

Rick Allen, a videographer who has spent much of the past 20 years documenting the retrieval of Queen Anne’s Revenge, the pirate’s sunken flagship, filed a lawsuit this week against the governor, two state senators and other top state administrators.

Allen says a law adopted last summer by the General Assembly, and signed by the governor, could pirate a bounty from him three years before the 300th anniversary of the sinking of the 300-ton frigate, by voiding the copyright on video and photos he made of efforts to recover artifacts from the ship.

“It’s what we call a case of modern day piracy on the Queen Anne’s Revenge,” Allen said Wednesday.

The legislation, nicknamed “Blackbeard’s law” by Allen, states that “all photographs, video recordings, or other documentary materials of a derelict vessel or shipwreck,” as well as “relics, artifacts or historic materials” in the custody of a state agency, shall be public records.

Cary Cox, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the overseer of the preservation and salvage of shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, told media outlets when the law was proposed last summer that it was an attempt to clarify public records laws.

Attempts to reach a department spokesperson Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Allen, a former TV news cameraman who owns Nautilus, a Fayetteville-based production company, described the law differently in the complaint filed in federal court. He says it would convert Allen’s copyrighted works documenting the preservation and salvage of Queen Anne’s Revenge and make them public records from which Allen could not reap financial rewards.

“It is outrageous that the agency charged with promoting the arts in North Carolina does so through the misuse of its citizens’ property,” Allen said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “Blackbeard’s Law affects every artist, writer, photographer, producer, historian and donor in N.C. and sets a dangerous precedent for N.C. government overreach.”

Allen’s suit is one of at least two involving Blackbeard’s ship filed since 2013, when a new administration came into office.

Intersal, a Florida-based shipwreck hunting company, sued the state last summer, arguing that state officials had violated a contract nearly two-decades old.

Intersal discovered the sunken treasure in 1996 and negotiated the rights to it two years later. In the 1998 agreement, Intersal contends it traded any rights to three quarters of the treasure in exchange for exclusive media and replica rights. Allen, an independent contractor, has done much of the video and photographic work.

In 2013, the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources did not renew the agreement, though Intersal and the state agreed later that year to share media and replica rights.

Intersal’s lawsuit claims an $8 million breach of contract. The suit, pending in state Business Court, argues that the state contracted with an organization called The Friends of Queen Anne’s Revenge, which then brought in other media groups.

Allen’s lawsuit takes a different legal tack and contends the state law adopted this summer – after the Intersal lawsuit was filed – violates federal copyright law. Allen said some of his images have been posted on websites without his approval.

The legal frays all come as a watershed anniversary for Queen Anne’s Revenge approaches. In 1718, Blackbeard ran the ship aground at Beaufort Inlet and later surrendered to North Carolina’s Gov. Charles Eden and promised to change his ways.

But it was not long before Blackbeard, or Edward Teach as he was also known, began pirating again, hiding in the Outer Banks inlets. He was killed in November 1718.

His story, and the artifacts he left behind, live on. Allen and others who’ve documented the early finds of Queen Anne’s Revenge know some of the ship’s treasure is not buried beneath the sea but is found in the images and replicas of relics on land.

That, they say, is one reason they are headed to court.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1