Hands Off My Garbage!

Once you put something in the trash, do you still own it?

Garbage bins

A St. Louis beauty salon owner found two scripts for Robert Pattinson films in a trash bin recently—one for a Twilight sequel, one for a forthcoming romantic drama, Memoirs. According to the salon owner’s lawyer, she considered leaking them to a tabloid but ultimately returned them to Summit Entertainment, the studio that’s making the films and owns the scripts. Once you put something in the trash, do you still own it?

Probably not. Items discarded in the trash are often classified as abandoned property—meaning the owner has relinquished his claim to the items and doesn’t intend to resume ownership. In one Indiana case from 1999, a labor organizer removed several bags of trash from a bin on the premises of a contracting company and searched them for employee contact information (for his unionization efforts). The company alleged that its property had been stolen, but the appellate court ruled that the organizer wasn’t liable since the material had been abandoned. Certain states, however, don’t have a free-for-all attitude toward garbage. In Texas, for example, the courts have found that depositing trash in a garbage bin does not constitute abandonment, per se, but rather the transfer of property from the owner to a waste-hauling firm.

The salon-owner case is complicated by the fact that whoever dumped the scripts in the trash likely wasn’t authorized to do so. (There’s speculation that actor Anna Kendrick is responsible since she had stayed in a hotel close to the garbage bin in question.) When actors, agents, managers, and so forth receive a script, they’re often under legal obligation not to dispose of it in a manner that might expose it to pirates, the press, or the general public. A court might thus look upon the scripts as lost property (of the studio) rather than the abandoned property (of Kendrick or someone else). In that case, the studio would have a greater claim than the Dumpster diver.

Of course, there’s a difference between the physical manuscripts found in the trash and their actual content. Finding a copy of The Catcher in the Rye on the sidewalk doesn’t mean you have the rights to J.D. Salinger’s story. Likewise, if the beauty salon owner had decided to post a significant amount of the script online, the studio could have gone after her for copyright infringement. Selling the scripts to a tabloid probably wouldn’t have gone over well, either, since the studio might have been able to sue her for illegal distribution of copyrighted property. (Whether or not the studio could sue the tabloid would depend on how much of the script was reprinted.)

The Supreme Court did weigh in on the status of trash in 1988 but from a privacy rather than property standpoint. In that case, the court ruled that the police can search trash bags without a warrant because it’s “common knowledge” that garbage is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.” And, therefore, there’s no “reasonable expectation of privacy” when it comes to discarded items.

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Explainer thanks Lior Strahilevitz of the University of Chicago Law School, attorney Paul D. Supnik, and Peter Yu of Drake Law School.