RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Undocumented and unclaimed items in collections - 09/29/2021
We have a couple of questions relating to Section 233-A of NYS Education Law, the "Museum Pro...
Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We have a couple of questions relating to Section 233-A of NYS Education Law, the "Museum Property Law". The law as written seems to only address totally undocumented objects and recent loans, but it also seems to have clear implications for the many partially documented objects and very old loans we have to deal with. As we all have slightly different ideas of how to stretch the law to fit our situation, I thought it would be best to get a legal opinion rather than trusting our common sense.

1) Regarding “undocumented property”: How much documentation is required for a donation to have sufficient written proof of legal transfer of ownership?

In the collections, we have a significant number of donated items which do not appear to have deeds of gift clearly transferring title from the original owner to the museum. They do appear in our ledgers along with the names of their donors, and sometimes have information confirming the link between donor and object on a vintage card cataloguing system – however, these forms of documentation are not a contract like the deed of gift, or even a piece of correspondence that shows an intent to donate.

In your reading of the Museum Property Law, should we consider such property to be undocumented, and to require similar measures to gain title? (That is, advertisement in local papers, followed by a period of advertisement on the state comptroller’s website.) Should we follow a similar procedure as with unclaimed property, despite these items not having been intended as loans? Or can we consider them to be documented, since we know the donors, and treat them like any other object when it comes to deaccessioning.

2) Regarding “unclaimed property”: How much of an effort is considered “good faith” in seeking lenders of very old loans?

The vast majority of the items we would consider unclaimed property were lent in the 1940s-1960s. From the research we’ve done into the lenders, they appear to be deceased, and in many cases their children are also deceased.

The law is written in such a way that it seems to presume all unclaimed property is the result of a recent loan that is still technically the property of a living person, which causes us some difficulties. It presumes that sending the lender a certified letter to their last known address will notify the person who currently owns the object. However, in our situation, as the original lenders are deceased someone else would have inherited their property – and in some cases, that heir would have left it to someone else in their own will.

If we know that a lender is deceased, are we still required to send them certified letters? Are we required to seek out their next of kin, and if so, are we required to continue seeking next of kin until we find a living relative? Is seeking permission from next of kin actually counterproductive, in that it could open us up to a lawsuit from a non-next-of-kin heir?

Thank you for any assistance you can give.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

[NOTE:  For some initial background on New York's law governing museums and loaned/donated items, see https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/filter/159]

On its face, NY Education Law 233-aa seems straightforward, but as the member's questions point out, it requires the consideration of a lot of details.

To answer the question while addressing those details, I'm going to use a story to give my answers some focus.

The Story

When I was in third grade,[1] a schoolmate brought her grandfather's shillelagh,[2] a family heirloom from Ireland, into school for "Show & Tell."

Before and after our "Show and Tell," the shillelagh was kept in my classmate's locker.

You probably know where this story is going.  At some point after "Show and Tell," the shillelagh went missing. 

I can still remember my teacher making the announcement, casting a discerning eye at my fellow third-graders, trying to pick out the criminal.[3]

To the best of my knowledge, that family heirloom has never been found.[4]  But because I am the sort of person who is very into both heirlooms and true crime mysteries, every few years, I find myself wondering where it is.[5]

But let's pretend that sometime in 1981, whoever took it that day held onto it for a bit, and then-- realizing they had no need for a hot shillelagh--hastily left it on a museum's doorstep with a note reading: "I thought you could use this, so here you go.  Sincerely, I.M. Purloiner." 

And to make my scenario work, let's further pretend the museum, finding an antique shillelagh to be within the scope of its mission,[6] accessions the item into its collection, and never hears from "I.M.  Purloiner" again.

And with that scenario to work with, let's answer these questions.

How much documentation is required for a donation to have sufficient written proof of legal transfer of ownership?

If a museum has any contemporaneous records showing that an item, when dropped off, was a "donation," unless there are circumstances to the contrary, I am comfortable saying the museum can regard the item as its own property.

In the member's scenario, that record would be a routine practice of recording items as either loans or donations.  In my scenario, there isn't quite enough (nothing shows an intent to transfer the ownership).

Of course, nowadays, there are very precise requirements for ensuring donors are aware of the terms of a gift to a museum.  For example, Education Law 233-aa (3) requires:

Prior to the acquisition of property by gift, a museum shall inform a donor or prospective donor of the provisions of this section and shall provide a donor or prospective donor with a written copy of its mission statement and collections policy, which shall include policies and procedures of the museum related to deaccessioning.

But what about, as the member writes, documentation of items from before the law was in effect?[7]  Again: if a museum can show a customary practice of accepting donations by recording them in a particular way, I believe it can make a compelling case that the title (ownership) of the piece was transferred to the museum at the time of the intake.

I base this conclusion, in part, on the law's definition of a "loan" and a "lender":

The term “loan” means a deposit of property with a museum not accompanied by a transfer to such museum of title to the property.

The term “lender” means a person legally entitled to, or claiming to be legally entitled to, property held by the museum or, if such person is deceased, the legal heirs of such person.

That said, if there is no record of how an item was accepted (as either a donation or loan), the only presumption I can endorse is that the item was a loan.

Which brings us to the member’s next question: In the collections, we have a significant number of donated items which do not appear to have deeds of gift clearly transferring title from the original owner to the museum. ...  In your reading of the Museum Property Law, should we consider such property to be undocumented, and to require similar measures to gain title?

Building on the idea that if there is clear evidence that the property was accepted as a gift--even if not through a "deed of gift" or other typical instrument--I would regard it not as "undocumented" (which means there is no reliable information as to the lender or donor), but as a donation.  On the flip side, if accepted as a loan, I would again not regard it as "undocumented," but rather, as "unclaimed" property, as contemplated by Section 7 of the Education Law 233-aa:

Unless there is a written loan agreement to the contrary, and notwithstanding any other provision of law regarding abandoned or lost property, a museum that has made a good faith and reasonable search for the identity and last known address of the lender from the museum records and other records reasonably available to museum staff may terminate a loan for unclaimed property in its possession in accordance with the provisions of this subdivision. [emphasis added]

Which brings us to the member's next question:  Regarding “unclaimed property”: How much of an effort is considered “good faith” in seeking lenders of very old loans?

There is no magic formula for "good faith" (in this context), but in general, if a museum feels it can show it has used all available resources, without undo time and expense, it should be able to demonstrate it.

The trick to "good faith" is being able to show a meaningful, genuine effort.  Does it mean a museum has to hire a private investigator to establish the identity of a person who left a shillelagh on its porch in 1981? No. But if a known lender with a known address is recently deceased, and a list of heirs can be obtained from the Surrogate’s Court in their county (for free or a nominal copying fee), should that be done? Yes.

This brings us to these final questions:

If we know that a lender is deceased, are we still required to send them certified letters?

If it is known that the lender is deceased, the letter should be addressed to their heir, if possible. 

Are we required to seek out their next of kin, and if so, are we required to continue seeking next of kin until we find a living relative?

It is not the next-of-kin, but the "heir" who should be sought (the terms are not synonymous[8]). 

How does a museum identify a deceased lender’s heir?  That information can "reasonably" be sought in the Surrogate's Court in the county of the lenders' last known residence.  And if the information isn't there, I feel comfortable saying that a documented attempt to locate it there is all that is needed to show "good faith."

Is seeking permission from next of kin actually counterproductive, in that it could open us up to a lawsuit from a non-next-of-kin heir?

As I say, because of how 233-aa defines "lender," it is not the next-of-kin who should be sought, but the "heir."   Of course, doing the right thing is never a guarantee that a museum won't be sued...but if there is a legal action, or threat of one, efforts to find the "heir" will establish a "good faith" attempt to follow the law, which will position a museum to legally defend its actions.

All of which brings me back to my classmate's missing shillelagh.  If the museum in my scenario decided it wasn't comfortable with the manner in which it was acquired, and wanted to firm up its claim to the item (or return it to its owner), that is when a museum can follow the process for "undocumented property" and publish a notice meeting the requirements of 233-aa.

I hope this walk through the details (with a shillelagh), has been helpful.



[1] Circa 1981.

[2] What's a shillelagh (pronounced "shill-lay-lee")?  It's an Irish walking stick; for more info, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shillelagh_(club).

[3] It was not me.

[4] I resisted the urge to jump on Facebook and find my former classmate to ask.  What a random, creepy question to ask after 30 years of silence.

[5] If by any chance you are reading this in the Central New York area and happen to know, please send me a note at adams@losapllc.com.

[6] The Museum of Wooden Tools?  The Museum of Walking Sticks?  The Museum of Irish Implements?

[7] 2008.

[8] This is why it is important to try and get the information from the Surrogate's Court.  A person may die and deliberately disinherit their next-of-kin, while designating other heirs.

 

Tags: Archives, Donations, Historical societies and museums, Special collections

Topic: Copyright protocols for restaurant menus - 05/06/2021
(Question has been slightly modified to maintain anonymity) We have been digitizing restaurant, ...
Posted: Thursday, May 6, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

(Question has been slightly modified to maintain anonymity)

We have been digitizing restaurant, hotel and other menus from our historical menu collection and have been following standard copyright protocols – but also making many case-by-case decisions based on things like whether of the establishment still exists, etc. (With only a couple exceptions I made for a faculty member who had permission of the restaurant owners, I haven’t scanned any menus from after 2000.) Our public collection site is used by students and researchers around the world.

My question is: can we scan and put online menus dated after 1977 (and especially more recent – up until 2021) if it is for educational purposes? If we do scan them, would we need permissions from every single chef/owner? The copyright status of menus in general has always seemed murky to me, but I don’t even know where to go to find clear answers for this situation.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Menus can be works of art.[1]

"Art" of course, is a subjective term, and has no precise, stand-along definition in copyright law.[2]  So more importantly for this discussion, a "menu" can be a composition of such originality and substance, that it is protected by copyright law.

This protection can be for the work as a whole (the entire menu), and/or it can be for individual elements in the work.  It can cover stand-alone elements (such as a cover photo image or flavor text[3] used to describe a signature dish), and, in these days of Slice and Grubhub and Yelp, it can be for the menu as a physical object, or a version published only online.  It can cover the original art in a trademarked logo, whether that art was generated by an independent contractor or employee.

Recent case law illustrates how these protections can be sliced-and-diced, and also shows just how nasty litigation over restaurant copyrights and trademarks can be.[4]  Menus and the logos and information they carry can be the apex of a restaurant's brand, reputation, and intellectual property.  So the member is right to take this concern seriously.

With care, however, the act of creating an online archive of carefully curated restaurant menus, for well-articulated academic purposes, should be able to find protection in the line of "fair use" case law building on the 2nd Circuit's 2015 decision in Authors Guild v. Google,[5] which relates to the creation of online repositories.[6]

As the Court found in that case: The purpose of the copying [to create the online resource] is highly transformative, the public display of text is limited, and the revelations do not provide a significant market substitute for the protected aspects of the originals.

The key to scanning and incorporating menus still under copyright protection into an archival database of menus at a library or educational institution, while taking advantage of the fair use defense set forth in Authors Guild, is to do so in a manner that:

  • Yields an asset that is useful beyond the mere replication of a single menu;
  • Ensures the archive will not enable use of its images in place of a copyright-protected original text or image; and
  • Uses an array of professionally developed standards to confirm and assert the academic and/or cultural value of the archive as a whole, and the inclusion of a particular work in that archive.

There are numerous techniques to achieve this.

First and foremost, the purpose of the archive should be developed and set forth on the archive in clear, well-developed terms. The database should not look like a group of menus simply gathered together by a person who happens to have made a collection of his favorite restaurants.[7] The cultural value and purpose of the collection should be stated in very certain terms, and consistently repeated throughout the archive's pages, cataloging text, and metadata.

Second, the function of the archive should be such that users can demonstrably benefit from the aggregated content and information. For instance, menus should be searchable by geographic region, type of food, notable characteristics, and other relevant factors...giving the aggregated content value beyond what is created by each individual entry.[8]

Third, the archive should adopt a standard approach to assessing and depicting the authorship, ownership, and copyright status of archived works.[9]

Fourth, the images themselves should be created so that a third party using the image cannot create a credible replica of the menu or the original originating restaurant's logo or copyright-protected content. A picture taken with a border, or the use of a watermark indicating that the image is part of the archive are some common ways to do this; technology creates many other and evolving options.

Fifth, since it will help mitigate damage in the event a copyright owner simply refuses to believe an archive has made a "fair use" of their content, the overall approach of the collection should be assessed using your institution's fair use assessment form, and that record should be kept. Why is that?  Being able to demonstrate a good-faith effort to establish that the use is fair can help mitigate damages, and can be a deterrent to a plaintiff pursuing a lawsuit all the way to a verdict.

Sixth, the "Terms and Conditions" of your online archive should feature a process for owners to report good-faith suspicion of copyright infringement, and your institution should have a registered agent as provided by the DMCA.  An example of this type of statement can be found in the DPLA's Terms and Conditions as of April 15, 2021: https://dp.la/about/terms-conditions. [10]

Seventh, if you haven't, consider the benefits of registering an agent under the DMCA, and if it's a good move for your institution, register (you can look up and see if your institution already has an agent here: https://www.copyright.gov/dmca-directory/).

And finally, to the extent possible, for steps five, six, and seven, work with your institution's attorney, who can connect all these steps and the academic activity they support with your institution's insurance and risk tolerance.[11]

So, with all that as background, here are my answers to the questions:

Can we scan and put online menus dated after 1977 (and especially more recent – up until 2021) if it is for educational purposes?

Answer: Yes, copyright-protected materials can be duplicated if the use is fair; by following the cautions above, an institution can set itself up to both create a highly useful and important archive, to claim fair use, and to mitigate damages in the event of a worst-case scenario.

If we do scan them, would we need permissions from every single chef/owner?

Answer: if the use is fair, there is no need for permission...and in fact, asking for it could be introduced by a plaintiff as an admission that you concluded you needed permission.

Now, a word of caution on this: if your archive is part of a larger institution, the other departments of that larger institution need to be alerted that just because an image is on your archive, that doesn't mean they can use it for a catalog cover, a web site image, or a poster advertising your institution.  After all, a use that is "fair" for an academic archive might not be so "fair" if it is on a brochure for a program or event (even if the program or event is not subject to a charge).  This is especially true since menus will often feature not only copyright-protected material, but trademarks (which, unlike copyrights, do not expire if they are in continuous use).

The copyright status of menus in general has always seemed murky to me, but I don’t even know where to go to find clear answers for this situation.

Because the menus themselves can be protected by copyright--as well as the individual elements in the menus--that "murkiness" is here to stay. Unless a menu is clearly in the public domain, it is best to assume that it--or some part of it--is subject to copyright, and remember that a restaurant's name and logo are its intellectual property, too.  The reason an archival initiative can make this assumption, and still hope to achieve its objective, is because by carefully and deliberately assembling those individually protected elements, they are creating a broader work with value beyond each individual element.

The value of a collection of menus is likely obvious to librarians, academics, and information managers.  But just as an example of how valuable such a resource can be, even outside the field of scholarship, I'll share a personal anecdote: while working on a case for a neighborhood fighting a fast food drive-thru in their dense, urban neighborhood, I used the New York Public Library's digital collection to find a menu for the "Little Harlem Hotel" in Buffalo NY.  The menu was part of the research we used to make the case that the neighborhood has a history worth fighting for. 

We lost the case,[12] but that menu helped create a vivid argument about the history of the neighborhood and its vibrant legacy, and that argument was energized by the archive.  An online archive of menus can be important in countless ways; finding the right legal recipe to make it happen is worth it.

Thank you for a great question.

 



[1] If you are skeptical about "menus as art," check out the menu here, and tell me if the rooster doesn't convince you that he could be in a museum.

[2] "Visual art" does, and of course "art" as a general term is used regularly in copyright jurisprudence. But "art" remains a subjective term.

[3] Yep, that's a "flavor text" pun.  Yum.

[4] The 2019 case Khan v Addy's BBQ LLC, (419 F Supp 3d 538), involving former business partners operating BBQ joints in Tea Neck, NJ, and Elmont, NY, shows just how convoluted these things can get.  Another case from 2018, 784 8th St. Corp. v Ruggiero, 2018 US Dist LEXIS 5405 shows how copyright ownership to logos and menus can change based on who did the work; also, it shows that if you are in business with family, it is important to have a good lawyer!

[5] Authors Guild v Google, Inc., 804 F3d 202.  The Supreme Court denied a chance to review this case, leaving the 2nd Circuit's decision intact. 

[6] The database created by Google in the Authors Guild case was not a straightforward online archive like the one described by the member here.  However, the case is still applicable in several important ways.

[7] I know a professional archivist would not do this, but this is a very important distinction.

[8] Other "relevant factors" of which I, a food philistine living in the city that invented Buffalo Wings, and originally from the city that invented Chicken Riggies and Half-Moon cookies, am shamefully unaware.

[9] The approach of the Digital Public Library of America ("DPLA") happens to be my favorite, seen here in this document about the Erie Canal, but is not the only standard out there. What's important is that the institution identified a system that works for it--and then consistently uses that system.

[10] It would be deeply ironic if the DPLA sent me a "cease and desist" for linking to their excellent resources.

[11] Since every archive or library has a different structure and different approach, while inspiration can be drawn from fellow institutions, the final approach and policies should be reviewed by a lawyer for your institution whenever possible.  As just a threshold issue, state-affiliated institutions have different risk considerations than independent not-for-profits.

[12] It hurt to lose, but the damage to the neighborhood hurt more.

Tags: Archives, Copyright, Digitization and Copyright, Fair Use, Special collections

Topic: Special collections not recorded on institutions's ledgers - 01/27/2021
We received some questions from a chartered museum about weeding from the museum's internal re...
Posted: Wednesday, January 27, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We received some questions from a chartered museum about weeding from the museum's internal research library:

  • What legal considerations govern weeding and/or deaccessioning the materials from a museum's library?
  • What if the museum’s library isn't sure how it acquired the materials?
  • What might the legal ramifications be if the institution were to transfer select items from their library to a historical society more in line with their content and origins?
  • Does the museum have the legal right to sell the materials at auction?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Put your sneakers on.  These questions require us to jump through several analytical hoops.

Hoop 1

First, a library that is part[1] of a chartered museum or historical society in the state of New York, when weeding materials, must figure out which, if any, of the materials within the library are part of the museum's official collection, and thus controlled by the museum's "collection management policy."

Most museums and historical societies maintain good records of this, and it's a yes-or-no question, so this first hoop is fairly simple.

 

Hoop 2

With collection status determined, any materials within the library that were "accessioned" (brought into the museum's official collection) under the collection management policy must also be "de-accessioned" per that policy,[2] before they can be weeded from the library's collection and thrown out,[3] donated or sold.

Any materials that were not accessioned into the museum's official collection are still assets of the chartered entity, but do not have to go through the de-accession ritual prior to what comes next.

 

Hoop 3

Next, the museum or historical society must determine if there are any conditions or restrictions on the materials, such as a donor agreement, a grant, or other contractual terms.  If there are any restrictions, those must be addressed.

 

Hoop 4

Next is to confirm ownership.  If the museum doesn't have a clear record of how the materials were acquired (either by purchase or donation), or if they were loaned to the museum and never picked up, the museum must follow the procedure in Education Law 233-aa to assert its ownership before it can consider any removal.[4]

 

Hoop 5

After doing what's needed to establish the materials' status, the museum can then--as governed by its own charter, bylaws, and policies--either 1) donate the materials to another charitable organization (transfer for free to an individual or for-profit organization could cause problems), or 2) sell[5] them for fair market value[6] to any organization it wishes (profit, non-profit, or individual).[7]

 

Contingent Hoop 6 (the "de-accession hoop")

Of course, sale or donation of any items that started out in the collection will be governed by the factors in the regulations governing de-accession (8 NYCRR 3.27).  This consideration was already raised in Hoops 1 and 2, but is so critical, it is worth mentioning again.

 

Contingent Hoop 7 (the "233-aa contingency hoop")

If the materials were "undocumented property" or "unclaimed property" under 233-aa, and the materials are to be sold, there is an extra consideration: any proceeds derived from the sale of the materials can only be use for "the acquisition of property for the museum’s collection or for the preservation, protection, and care of the collection and shall not be used to defray ongoing operating expenses of the museum." 

 

And with all those hoops complete, there you have it: a full cardio workout, based on assessing a museum's library's property's[8] status under the law.

 

I hope this analysis and advice are helpful (and good exercise).

 



[1] A museum or historical society cannot operate a library with circulation to the public without provisions in its charter.  However, a museum or historical society can operate an internal library for purposes of supporting the collection, and that's what we're talking about here. 8 NYCRR 3.27(f)(3).

[2] Which should follow the regulations set out in 8 NYCRR 3.27

[3] I have been told that most librarians do not have the same gut-wrenching aversion to the idea of throwing out books that I do.  Typing "thrown out" actually made me wince. 

[4] This is one of my favorite laws on the books, because it contains the magic formula for transforming an object of unknown origin, or an abandoned object, into the property of the museum.  That said, in practice, it can be a bit of a pain, because the formula contains multiple steps and a publications requirement.

[5] The last question, thankfully, requires no hoops: "sale" could certainly include an auction, or any other legitimate method of transferring title for consideration (money, or assets in-kind). 

[6] A sale for a nominal amount, or for less than fair market value, to a for-profit or individual can impact charitable and 501(c)(3) status.

[7] Since the library within the museum is not a chartered library, it does not have to follow the requirements of Education Law 226.6(b), requiring that materials be offered to a local charity or political subdivision.

[8] Could I sneak another apostrophe in there?  How about: "museum's library's property's boxes' cardboard's strength?"  Oh, yeah.

 

Tags: Deaccessioning, Historical societies and museums, Special collections, Weeding

The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.