Although not exactly the same scenario, it is related philosophically to the Ship of Theseus.

Okay, so Eve stills a bunch of ship parts from Bob and the design for a super-ship from Alice. Eve uses Alice's design to make a ship from Bob's parts. She is later arrested. Eve also has no money or assets (she destroyed her tool box).

So now we have a ship. The parts are owned by Bob, and the design by Alice. Who owns the ship.

  • The estimated value of the parts and the design is the same. (The parts are quite expensive, and the design required extensive R&D).
    • The whole ship has value equal to the combined value of the parts and design (Eve is an expert ship builder).
  • If the ship is disassembled, Bob's parts will be ruined and have no value.
  • Whoever owns the ship will be able to get Alice's design. If anyone besides Alice learns about Alice's design, she will lose all ability to make money off of it.
  • Alice and Bob will not compromise; they both feel entitled to the whole ship, and will not agree to anything else.

Bob owns the parts and Alice owns the configuration. Who owns the ship?

1 Answer 1


You would think that if someone steals your things and you find the thief and the things, you have the right to get them back. Often, but not always.

If the stolen goods are distinguishable items, you have the right to get them back. If B steals a car from A, then sells it to C, A can ask C for his car back. But if B steals $10,000 from A and pays his debts to C, A cannot get the money from C. Cash is not distinguishable items, so A can only get his money back from B - bad luck if B doesn't have any money.

In this case, the parts stolen from Bob don't exist anymore. They have become part of the ship. The ship is property of Eve. Eve has to pay damages to Bob and Alice, probably to be determined by court. And the court will probably say that Eve has to sell the ship to get money to pay back Bob and Alice. (She may have to empty her bank account as well, and sell other things). If the money isn't enough, tough. And if Eve has more debt, I don't think Bob and Alice are higher up the list than others.

Whether Bob and Alice feel entitled to the ship doesn't matter because neither of them is entitled at all. If the design is copyrighted then nobody can just copy it; if the design is just a trade secret, that trade secret is gone.

  • So Eve sells the ship and gives the money to Bob and Alice. Bob has no parts and Alice's design is no longer profitable (because someone else go the design). Correct? Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 23:16
  • Also, those this change if Alice and Bob have sentimental attachements to the design and/or parts? Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 23:32
  • @PyRules If Alice's ability to make money from her design depends on nobody having access to a ship built from that design, then the ability to make money from the design disappears after one such ship is built, whether by a thief of the design or a licensee. More likely, Alice protects her ability to profit by patent, copyright, or other intellectual property protections.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 5:15
  • What if Eve is a billionaire and can afford to pay damages without selling the ship, and would prefer to do that and keep the ship?
    – Someone
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 5:04

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