How is Data Starfleet property? Soong wasn't Starfleet as far as I know, so how can Starfleet declare someone else's property their own?

In Measure of a Man Data resigns and will be ruled property of starfleet if Riker doesn't prosecute against him. I'm talking about the start of the episode where the Judge says he's nothing more that a toaster if Riker refuses to participate in the trial, not the end when he is judged sentient.

Data was not built by Starfleet and therefore can't be Starfleet property, so how can they make this claim in law?

Are there any references that would justify Starfleet's claim on this piece of technology being their property?

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    Finders keepers man. That’s the real Prime Directive. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 17:12
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    Just for clarity sake: he was already considered as property. The trial was to argue against that and establish his independence. If Riker chose not to participate, the trial would summarily be dismissed and the property opinion would stand.
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 17:38

2 Answers 2


Salvage Law

Data was found inactive on the surface of a planet that had been stripped of life. While we don't have the exact text of the Federation's version of Salvage Law, it is known from an episode of Deep Space Nine that abandoned technology on a lifeless planet can be claimed by its finder. This is consistent with maritime salvage laws.

Inheritance Law

It is unclear what, if any, inheritance law the Federation has. In a post-scarcity society, most people probably wouldn't have a significant estate to pass on to any heirs; it's possible this would be decided on a case by case basis.

The average citizen of the Federation likely has few true possessions as we imagine them. Any portable property you could own can be created with a replicator; energy is cheap and plentiful; we don't know what kind of data storage is available to the Federation (this was deliberate, to prevent it from becoming obsolete the day after they set a limit on it), but we can assume it's pretty big.

Most people probably do not own a home in any sense we would recognise. More likely they would live in apartments in arcologies or space stations. There's no money in the Federation, so there are no liquid assets to be disposed of.

Inheritance and its complexity take on a very different meaning when you take the idea of "value" out of the equation.

You're left with large and immobile assets, like houses or real estate, and unique items whose worth is in the meaning of the item rather than its physical composition - that is, its sentimental or historical value. These can be dealt with using a fairly simple inheritance law.

As far as we know, Dr. Soong had no biological children, siblings, or living parents; in such a situation, there's nobody else around to claim ownership of Data. There's no complex set of rules to trace back to the closest living relative, no value to be split between mothers and fathers sides of the family...there's just this unique android who appears to be sentient.

In such situations, it's not unheard of for unclaimed property to be either destroyed (if nobody wants it) or to revert to the state (if it's valuable). In this case, the latter possibility is a solid contender.

From two angles, then - Salvage Law and Inheritance Law - the Federation in general, and Starfleet in particular, could claim 'ownership' of Data if it was decided that he was, indeed, property.

Now that I think of it, of course, there are a couple of other ideas to bring to the table:

Treasure Trove

The law has long agreed that if a person finds a store of valuables (normally defined as gold or silver), and nobody else could prove they owned it, then it belonged to the finder. In the 20th Century, it was normal practice for the State to claim ownership of the actual property found, but to pay the finder for its full value. Of course, in the case of Data, it was the State itself that was the finder; so we have a third string to the legal argument. The fourth string would be the laws of Lost, mislaid and abandoned property.

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    Inheritance is a pretty important feature of our society today, with complex laws covering multiple possible circumstances. However, in a society like the Federation, where any material wealth can be obtained easily with a replicator, personal possessions become less important, and inheritance law with it. It's likely therefore that Federation inheritance law is quite simple.
    – Werrf
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 17:53
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    The first part of your answer makes sense (and gives an in universe example of the Federation claiming salvage rights)
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:05
  • There is still real estate to deal with, like the Picard family vineyards or Samuel Sisko's restaurant. And there are larger items, like shuttles and cargo ships, that can't be popped out of a replicator. Do we know how those are handled?
    – miltonaut
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:15
  • @miltonaut Remember no-one actually owns property in the federation, its given by the state, so all of those things are property of the state and never the property of the individual to begin with. Although the Federation would probably allow a family property/business to stay with the family (unless the didn't want it)
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:25
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    Hah, sounds all well and good until about five minutes after Aunt Mabel's death, at which point exactly whom she wanted to leave her heirloom earrings to becomes very important indeed.
    – Broklynite
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 18:34

It might be because he was found and activated by an away team from the USS Tripoli which is mentioned in TNG season 1 episode 13. So they would have rights to think of him as nothing more than a machine and their property.

Think of it more like salvage if that helps, Starfleet claimed salvage rights on Data.

  • If I find a motorbike with the keys in it and start it up, that doesn't make it my property. I'm looking for how they can declare it their property the way they did (which would need them to do a 2nd trial on whether their claim on the property was legit first)
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 3:14
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    No you are correct but if you find something in the middle of nowhere from a civilization that I believe no longer existed. Think of it more like salvage if that helps, Starfleet claimed salvage rights on Data.
    – Des
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 3:16
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    @Des It might be helpful to include in your answer about Starfleet claiming salvage rights over Data.
    – Jane S
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 3:26

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