RALEIGH — With the legal battle over the rights to images of Blackbeard’s sunken flagship intensifying, lawmakers waded into the fray by taking up legislation aimed at a shipwreck-exploration company suing the state for $8 million.
The lawmakers amended an otherwise uneventful bill to add new language stating that all footage and photographs of shipwrecks held by state agencies are public property.
Intersal Inc., the Florida-based company that discovered the wreck off the coast in 1996, sued the state on Monday for breach of contract for allowing more than 2,000 images and 200 minutes of video appearing without a watermark online outside of the Department of Cultural Resources website. The Department of Cultural Resources oversees the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Department officials deny that they broke the contract with Intersal. In a statement Wednesday, a spokeswoman said the new legislation was an attempt to clarify which records lie in the public domain, and said it would not have an effect on current contracts.
Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, said the department asked him and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, to add the language to a substitute bill proposed in a Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
“I’m sure that it was brought forth because of the lawsuit,” Sanderson said, adding that he did not know of any judge that would allow the law to be applied retroactively in the state’s defense.
However, wreck’s explorers were skeptical to claims the law could not be used against them in court.
“In Intersal’s opinion, this bill is a blatant attempt to undercut both our contract in the settlement agreement as well as our legal action,” said John Masters, chairman of the board of Intersal. “Intersal will amend our filing to address this and await further developments.”
The company’s 1998 agreement — updated just two years ago — with the state also gives Intersal the rights to the wreck of the El Salvador, which sank in 1750. While the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found without any valuable booty, some loot may remain with the El Salvador, which Intersal could lay claim to.
Sanderson said he knew of no other pending cases the law could be applied to in the future, and said he was only passively following the legal battle over the wreck, which sits about a mile off the coast in a part of his district in Carteret County.
“There’s been a lot of horse trading going along with it,” Sanderson said. “I thought for a while they had some kind of compromise and now it has come up again.”
The bill is scheduled for debate in the Senate next week, and will also have to be approved by the House.
The wreck of Blackbeard’s ship has become a popular tourist destination for the state, including an exhibit at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner contributed to this report from Raleigh.