Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Res Derelicta Definition:

Latin: a thing abandoned.

Related Terms: Wreck

A thing that has been abandoned and has become ownerless.

In his McGill Law Journal article, R. A. MacDonald wrote:

"Res derelicta (is) where the person is taking custody of an ownerless object.... (T)he occupier becomes owner by the simple act of occupation."

In part, the law of res derelicta in Roman law developed as a result of apparently ownerless farm animals which would be claimed by the finder.

Examples of res derelicta are all around us in the form of litter, the abandoned newspaper at the airport, or the old desk which sits on the curb with a big "FREE" sign on it.

If something is res derelicta, it is not capable of being stolen and therefore, no theft occurs when a person appropriate something that is res derelicta.

The development of the law of res derelicta developed into the maritime law concepts of derelict and wrecks.


  • 11 Edinburgh L. Rev. 450 (2007), page 452-453
  • Macdonald, R.A., Enforcing Rights in Corporeal Moveables: Revendication and Its Surrogates, 32 McGill L. J. 1 (1986-1987)
  • Saw, Cheng Lim, Law of Abandonment and the Passing of Property in Trash, 23 SAcLJ 145 (2011)
  • Verplaetse, Julian G.On the Definition and Legal Status of Spacecraft, 29 J. Air L. & Com. 131 (1963)

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