In a previous post, I argued that it is unfair to blame the person who found Apple’s iPhone prototype for not returning the phone. The issue is an important one, because the adventures of the wayward phone led to a police raid on tech blogger Jason Chen’s home. The short version is this: the finder of the phone tried in earnest to return it, but Apple wouldn’t return his calls. Thus, the iPhone ended up in Chen’s hands.
That’s the fairness issue. Now on to the law.
The statute at issue is California Civil Code § 2080, et seq., which provides:
Any person or any public or private entity that finds and takes possession of any money, goods, things in action, or other personal property … shall, within a reasonable time, inform the owner, if known, and make restitution …
If the owner is unknown or has not claimed the property, the person saving or finding the property shall, if the property is of the value of one hundred dollars ($100) or more, within a reasonable time turn the property over to the police …
So in California, if you find something valuable, you have to give it back to the owner, and if you can’t identify the owner, you have to give the thing to the police. So far so good. But this does not mean that the finder of the iPhone violated the law. The provisions of the California statute don’t apply under these facts because the finder did identify the owner, and did contact the owner. The owner then declined to respond. Apple’s refusal to take back the iPhone takes this out of the circumstances contemplated by the statute.
Reading the statue, it seems pretty clear that there is not intended to be a continuing legal obligation on the finder when the owner has rebuffed attempts to give the property back. In such a case, silence may be reasonably interpreted as abandonment of the property. This is not a matter of the property having been “not claimed” in the words of the statute. This is a matter of the property having been relinquished.
Much of the commentary coming out about the iPhone affair has been critical of Gizmodo and the finder with regard to the lost property aspect. These commentators have focused too much on the fact that this phone was some top-secret hyper-valuable prototype. That may be true, but it’s a fact known only now, a fact made evident because of what Apple eventually did to get the phone back.
But for the legal analysis, we need to look at the facts from the perspective of a reasonable person who does not know the end of the story. Back before the finder sold the phone to Gizmodo, the finder had no reason to believe the phone was anything other than a curious piece of junk. Apple clearly treated it like junk: (1) when they let it wander off at a bar, and (2) when they didn’t respond to efforts made to try to return it to them. It appeared, at best, to be some kind of rejected experiment without any continuing worth.
Now, you might say, surely the finder was on notice of how valuable it was when someone paid $5,000 for it. But if you say that, I say you don’t know Silicon Valley geeks.
The fact is, techies with money often spend it on tech junk. Tech weens will pay large amounts of money for vintage Betamax machines from the 1970s that don’t even work. Try buying a new inbox six-switch Atari 2600 on eBay for a reasonable price. Unless you think north of $2,000 is reasonable for one of the world’s most antiquated gaming systems, you’re out of luck. It is entirely reasonable to think that a prototype phone, worthless to Apple, would be highly prized as a curiosity by passionate geeks.