Is it legal to sell something you find in the trash?

The Patry Copyright blog has posted details of an interesting copyright case: United States v. Chalupnik. It doesn't, strictly speaking, have anything to do with hoaxes, except that it raises the question of whether there actually was a crime committed, or whether it's an example of a big corporation trying to invent a crime. Here are the facts, as summarized by William Patry:

defendant was an employee for the U.S. Postal Service. BMG Columbia House is a mail order operation selling CDs and DVDs by mail. Many of these discs are undeliverable. Rather than pay the postage to have them returned to it, BMG Columbia House instructed the Postal Service to throw them away. The Postal Service did throw them away. Defendant then retrieved them from the trash and sold them to area stores, netting $78,818. A surveillance camera showed defendant retrieving the items and he was arrested; he was originally charged with felony mail theft, but then pleaded guilty to misdemeanor copyright infringement. The trial court sentenced defendant to two years probation and ordered him to pay $78,818 to BMG in restitution. Chalupnik appealed.

So the guy took the CDs out of the trash and resold them, prompting BMG to complain that he had caused them lost sales. Does this mean that if I threw away a box full of my books, I could sue anyone who found them in the trash and sold them? That doesn't seem to make sense. After all, I threw them away, presumably forfeiting my ownership of them.

The court overturned the defendant's sentence on appeal -- but it sounds as if he still might face some other form of sentencing.

The complicating factor here is that he was a post office employee, and thus was obligated to honor the post office's promise to BMG that it would actually throw away the material.

Law/Police/Crime Music

Posted on Thu Feb 07, 2008


According to one legal advice site I checked, in the US 'Stealing trash is not illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that once an item is left for trash pickup, there is no expectation of privacy or continued ownership.'

I imagine that part of the issue, at least, is the contested interpretation of the first-sale doctrine: you can resell anything that has once been bought and paid for, but can you legally sell on something that was not? (Apparently, precedent says you can - but as in this case it's still disputed.) I'm not sure how these things work, but many countries have laws that require at least nominal payment in transactions (hence those alpine-village-for-a-penny stories and so on).

Can't be bothered to do all the research, though. No matter how much I want to be distracted from my work:)
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  10:28 AM
"The complicating factor here is that he was a post office employee, and thus was obligated to honor the post office's promise to BMG that it would actually throw away the material."

Perhaps his actions were considered to be some kind of "insider dumpster diving". Anyone else would have gotten away with it.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  10:32 AM
I'm not a lawyer, but I am a government employee. I personally think this has more to do with the fact that he was a government employee than otherwise. IMO, if it was a private corporation, he probably wouldn't have been charged (just fired).

As a government employee, I am (by law) un-allowed to make profit on anything, other than my paycheck. I am not allowed to accept gifts from vendors (we often get training courses with the big catch "win an ipod", etc). I can't take any material, good bad or otherwise, and sell it on e-bay. If the material is slated for destruction, it must be destroyed. There may be other agencies who operate otherwise, like letting you take home the old (to-be-trashed) PCs, but you still can't sell them for profit.

Prosecutions have happened, in the past, so I know that our local government agencies are willing to enforce this.
Posted by Bill  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  10:37 AM
I think Bill is right. I don't think -- though I could of course be wrong -- that BMG could have done a thing if those CDs were found and resold by a private citizen, but a post office employee can't fiddle around with post office trash. It's not so much what was done as it was who did it.
Posted by Kathleen  in  Indiana, USA  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  11:24 AM
When I worked for the library I was allowed to keep stuff that was going to the trash. Sometimes it was donations that we couldn't keep, other times it was books whose pages were getting loose & wouldn't survive multiple checkouts.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  01:02 PM
Even if you were a govt librarian, it was the library saying you were allowed to take things home. I used to work in a library and took loads of discarded books home.

If the post office told its employees that they were allowed to take anything that was thrown out, then BMG wouldn't have a case against the individual (against the USPS, maybe.)

A question semi-related to this: If a case like this goes on appeal, is the money held by the courts, or is the defendant allowed to keep it? Just curious on the fine points of the law.
Posted by leshka  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  05:53 PM
Sounds to me like BMG should be hiring this guys to work in sales....
Posted by coit  on  Fri Feb 08, 2008  at  07:23 AM
I came across this case: "Desperate Housewives" actress Marcia Cross had nude pictures taken out of her trash. Now she's seeking legal action claiming a copyright on the pictures to keep the finder from selling them.
Posted by Ima Fish  on  Fri Feb 08, 2008  at  09:21 AM
Some things to consider:
1. Were these items actually placed in the trash? Taking something that is "just going to be thrown away" without actually throwing it away does not comply with the property owner's (BMG) wishes.

2. Is the trash in a publicly accessible area? If the trash is within a USPS secured area, then it is still under the control of the USPS until it is trucked off-site.

3. Was this person off-clock and out of uniform when he 'dumpster dove'? As an employee, he has the obligation of fulfilling the disposal wishes of the property owner and cannot alter it.

Also, as Bill says above, as a federal employee, he would be prohibited from profiting while on the job or with insider information from the job.
Posted by Corwin, The Master Physicist  on  Fri Feb 08, 2008  at  11:33 AM
So...25 years ago I worked at a radio station that played comedy albums on the weekend (3 hour compilations of comedian's work focused on a single topic), then trashed them. I have about 52 weeks of these things. If I sell them I'm busted? I don't think so. Complain all you like about contents, I'm just reselling garbage, whatever form it takes.
Posted by EasyEd  on  Fri Feb 08, 2008  at  06:16 PM
One thing to consider. While at the workplace an employee of the USPS is an agent for the USPS. Thus, everything the employee does can be considered to be an official action of the USPS. I believe this is still the case if the employee is off duty but still at the workplace. Therefore, when the employee took the material at the USPS site, he was acting in an official capacity and breaking the contract USPS had with BMG. If a trash truck had hauled the material off site and he had then taken the material, the case would be different.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat Feb 09, 2008  at  09:24 AM
I think the big questions here to be asked are. Was the dumpster in a publically accessible area? Was he on duty at the time he recieved the packages? The fact is these WERE previously sold items. Columbia house sells CD's for pennies and i doubt they refunded money to the people that didnt recieve them. Also, once the CD's were in trash the required action HAD been taken by the post office it is not their responsibility to ensure they CD's make it to the landfill so as it is then public property it is ok for a person to take the materials. As a former federal employee the only materials that would be protected from such an action would be those with sensitive information or classification and these would be otherwise disposed of.
Posted by T  on  Sat Feb 09, 2008  at  11:17 AM
Bottom line is...BMG didn't want them...but then bitched when they made a profit.

It's like when someone gives you an old car...and then you turn the old car into a hot rod & the old owner says..."Oh, I want it back, I didn't realize it could be made INTO something."
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  06:19 AM
This is an interesting case it will be interesting to see how it pans out. Myself as a goverment employee I literally cannot take a used cardboard box as it will be recycled and is the property of the place I work (VA). These rules are very specific. Assuming the employee knew these rules, he would also know taking the cds is a violation of that rule in spirit if not in law. However those are internal company rules and though they would have repercussions with him as his status as an employee, they do not have relevance to BMG's claims. the fact that they asked them to be trashed seems to show they gave up their interest (ownership) of the cds. A fine point would be if they were asked to throw them out, or destroy them.
Personally I hate to see wastefulness, and think it's great he was enterprising and turned trash into treasure. It would be a shame if that is punished rather than rewarded.
Posted by partgypsy  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  07:09 AM
There is more to this case than an enterprising individual who is "victimized" by copyright laws. Discarded intellectual property that is sold by a third party will not show up in official sales figures and as a result the artist and publisher will not be paid for their work. This may be a "too bad, so sad" issue to many but in the long run it hurts everyone.

The reason so many musicians and writers struggle for years trying to make it in a tough and competitive industry is the possibility of making big money. If people persist in trying to get it for free, then they might decide to do something else for a living. Think about it. If your employer stopped paying you, how long would you keep working for them?
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  10:25 AM
I once had to do some private contractor work in a magazine distribution facility, and as some may know, unbought periodicals are removed from the shelves by the distributor, returned to the facility and (ulp) shredded. While there, I noticed a stack of returned (bound by straps, urgh) comic books awaiting the shredder... The comic collector in me made me want to set them free like a PETA member at a medical testing lab, but I overcame my urge and... let it go. Sorta. I still wake up screaming at night, clutching my Overstreet's Price Guide and reaching for the mylar bags of protection, with the image of thousands of shredded comix falling like confetti on a parade of OCD. True story
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  01:38 PM

For Sale: Banana
peel, chicken bones, half a shoe,
ton of DVDs.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  06:41 PM
First off, the company can't lose money they never had.
Second, If you throw it don't want it anymore and last but NOT least, If the amount the guy made off of selling the CD's hadn't been quit so high, nobody would have cared...the company just saw a good oppetunity to make extra money!
Posted by josh morgan  on  Tue Feb 12, 2008  at  10:37 AM
I do it at my work only because they don't pay me enough to live on and I sell what ever I find just to make ends meet.I work for the state goverment.Am not taking away from anyone because it's just stuff that is not wanted or broken
Posted by wassaw  on  Wed Feb 13, 2008  at  08:53 AM
I work for the post office and I assure you that we do NOT throw away CD or DVD's from BMG, Columbia House, Time Life or any of the other "music houses". We don't throw them away because, despite what was reported, the shippers do want them back. They are all marked with the endorsement "return service garenteed".
Posted by Noah_Tall  on  Thu Feb 14, 2008  at  11:55 AM
I personally have made over $8,000 this year off of things that I have found in the dumpster, my best find was probably a Dacor double stainless steel convection oven in which I sold pretty fast for $800.00 I am glad to know that it is legal to resale the stuff I have been wondering if I could get in trouble but I never go into fenced areas,
Posted by Ryan  on  Sat Nov 15, 2008  at  06:08 PM
I am an employee of a major retail chain. After doing a recent inventory of our store we found several security cameras that were 'dead' meaning they were no longer in our system and not sell-able. Our manager was told to break and dispose of the cameras. Tonight I was told to throw them in the dumpster unbroken. I did. Then i came back after work, not in uniform, and took a few out. Is this theft? I find no regulations in handbook, and I don't intend to resell.
Posted by George  on  Sun Apr 05, 2009  at  07:17 PM
another question to those still posting

Is it legal to sell those free USPS boxes they ship to you when you order them? The reason I ask is because the USPS sent me 20 boxes of the same kind, and I only wanted 10, i have no where to put them. Is it legal to sell them on eBAY or something?
Posted by Dane M.  on  Sat Aug 29, 2009  at  11:42 AM
I don't think it could be considered illegal. You might violate an agreement you made with USPS when you ordered the boxes and it might be possible that you could be sued civilly by the USPS. That would depend on what you had to agree to when you ordered the boxes.

While it might not be illegal it is certainly immoral to sell something that you got for free and that the purchaser could also get for free. Anyone would have to be a fool to pay you for free boxes and you would then be the type of person who would take advantage of a fool.
Posted by Noah_Tall  on  Sun Aug 30, 2009  at  03:56 AM
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