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Quote of the Day - Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. - Mark Twain

Pirates, Finders-keepers And Sunken Treasure

As we grew up, each of us at some time uttered the words, "Finders-keepers" after the joyous glee of discovering some previously unknown treasure with a value we perceived would make us rich, and all the while safe in the knowledge that if we invoked that mysterious incantation, title to our discovery would pass to us with all the certainty of our ownership good against the entire world of others who might lay an unjustified claim to it.

The Fourth Circuit, on the other hand, now tells us that we were just "a step away" from being labeled a pirate.  Not the fanciful pirates we discovered at Disneyland, but the type of pirates the Court holds in disdain and who pillage and plunder the treasure of the high seas for their own profit.  Unless, that is, if you choose to believe the Fourth Circuit over the French government.

What am I talking about?  The R.M.S. Titanic, a British ship sailing under a British flag, owned by a British company, late of that British port, Southampton, that never made it to the United States, having struck an iceberg some 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada, sinking to the ocean floor less than three hours after the collision.  Think about that for a moment:  English ship, sunk off Canada.  What are U.S. Courts and French Courts doing trying to exercise jurisdiction over the salvage efforts of the goods aboard the ship?  First and foremost, the salvagor, the RMS Titanic, Inc., submitted to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court after obtaining title to some 1,800 artifacts in 1987 from a French Administrative Agency.   

Only a pirate would know why.  In fact, those were the words of the court in denying RMS Titanic, Inc. title to the items discovered at the bottom of the sea:  "A free finders-keepers policy is but a short step from active piracy and pillaging," Judge Niemeyer wrote.  The Court elected to respect the French ruling, but ultimately decided not to grant the salvage company full ownership rights to the sunken treasure. 

The Court was troubled most about the salvagor's attempt to get two bites at the apple:  finder's rights as a consequence of the artifacts in its possession and at the same time salvagor's rights over the articles at the bottom of the seabed that were not yet in its possession.  Salvage rights, in admiralty law, are designed "to give[ ] potential salvors incentives to render voluntary and effective aid to people and property in distress at sea."  As the Court properly noted, it's a little late for that incentive now, but instead noted that unless sunken treasure is ancient, and no one could possibly appear in court to lay claim to it, then the title to the goods lays with the original owner (now insurance companies), and the property is not deemed abandoned. 

Therefore, since it's not abandoned, you can't apply the law of "finds" (finders-keepers) to the undersea property.

It makes sense, but it's too bad.  I kind of liked being a pirate


Posted by J. Craig Williams on Wednesday, February 01, 2006

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