Asked in Intellectual Property for Maine

Q: How do I prove ownership of property for the museum if previous owner does not properly log the article in as a donation

The previous curator received articles designated for the museum but failed to log them in as a donation. The original owner has deceased and the only evidence we have is an article written by the previous curator stating that these articles were going into the museum's collection. The son of the deceased now states they are his even though there was never a will. The only thing we have in writing is the article written by the previous curator who now states that article means nothing.

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1 Lawyer Answer
Andrew Zulieve
Andrew Zulieve
  • Waldoboro, ME
  • Licensed in Maine

A: This is an interesting question. It implicates several legal concerns (1) ownership of the physical letters, (2) ownership of the copyrights in them, and (3) transfer of property of the intestate (no will) of the deceased. As to (1): Intent to give the articles to the museum as a gift can be provided not only by evidence in a writing, but also by evidence such as the testimony of the previous curator as to her or his discussion with the donor of the articles and other direct and indirect evidence establishing the the articles were intended to be gifts, no loans to the museum. As to (2), under Copyright Law, copyright in the articles is an "intangible property" legal interest that exists separate and apart from the original work of authorship (here, the articles), and can only be transferred in writing. The issue here would be to determine who owns the copyright (the author, a publishing company etc.), and if there is any writing that would transfer copyright to the museum. That does not seem likely here. Without such a writing, and assuming that the articles were given to the museum as gifts, the museum owns the physical works but not the copyrights in them. As to (3), that is an issue of probate law for the state in which the person died. In the case of an estate dispute in court, argument (1) would probably apply.

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