Abandoned property: an overview
At common law, a person who finds abandoned property may claim it. To do so, the finder must take definite steps to show their claim. For example, a finder might claim an abandoned piece of furniture by taking it to her house, or putting a sign on it indicating her ownership.
Many jurisdictions have statutes that modify the common law's treatment of lost or abandoned property.
In the context of intellectual property, abandoned property refers to the relinquishing of intellectual property rights by an owner, thereby allowing others to use the intellectual property without protest. For example, an inventor who does not register a patent to his invention relinquishes the patent rights associated with his invention, allowing others to use his invention freely and without recourse.
Courts may have a difficult time distinguishing whether property is lost, mislaid, or abandoned. Typically, this is a question of fact, which means that the jury usually decides the issue.
In order to determine whether to grant possession to the finder of lost/mislaid/abandoned property, courts will often look to the type of item and where it was found in order to determine whether the finder of the item has a right to the item.
In general, items which are abandoned or lost will go to the finder, unless the find is made at an owner-occupied residence. A Mislaid items usually belong to the possessor of the place where the item is found. If an employee finds an item in the course of his employment, it belongs to the employer. A finder is a bailee, with a duty to care for the found item.
Law of Shipwrecks
While the doctrine of abandoned property typically only applies to personal property, U.S. law has carved out an application for the doctrine in relation to sunken ships. Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, 43 U.S.C. §§ 2101-2106, abandoned shipwrecks which are within three miles of the United States territorial limits belong to the United States. In turn, the U.S. gives control over the shipwreck to whichever state would be the most appropriate.
*For further reading on the matter of abandoned property, this William & Mary Law Review note offers a more in-depth analysis on the matter, particularly as it pertains to Virginia.