Almost 42 years ago, Mark David Chapman asked John Lennon to sign his copy of Lennon’s album ‘Double Fantasy’.

Hours later, Chapman murdered Lennon just outside his residence at the Dakota apartment complex in Manhattan.

Chapman left the signed album in one of the planters at the Dakota entrance where it was found that night by a building superintendent who submitted it as evidence to the NYPD during their investigation into Lennon’s murder. It appears that the NYPD returned the album to the building superintendent that found it, who kept it for 18 years before selling it in 1998.

22 years later the album was put up for auction by GA Goldin Auctions and on November 23, 2020, the signed album was sold for $900,000.

This brings me to the obvious (in my eyes) question – who, in the first place, should have owned the infamous signed album?

Was it Lennon himself or was it a part of his estate?

Was it the property of Chapman?

Was it to be considered as evidence hence a property of the State of New York?

Was it to be considered as the property of the Dakota building owner?

Or was it to be “finders’ keepers”?

I’m not trying to steer any new ownership arguments, but it is safe to say it cannot be Lennon’s estate especially due to the Doctrine of Exhaustion of rights.

The Doctrine of Exhaustion of rights states that when the owner of an intellectual property right sells a product or goods to which the intellectual property rights are attached, his/her ability and right to prohibit the buyer from reselling the product (including its IP rights) to a third party expires. This means that the first sale of the product or merchandise is interpreted as “exhaustion of the right”.

According to the Doctrine of Exhaustion of rights once the album was purchased by Chapman it became his property even if he asked Lennon to sign it for him.

Taking this to a more “local” point of view, in Israel, the question of the Doctrine of Exhaustion of rights hasn’t been dealt with very often but the doctrine was accepted in several judgments, in cases dealing with trademarks and parallel import of goods, copyrights and even Cultivating varieties[1].

A dramatic angle to this issue was recently given in an Israeli Supreme court ruling that decided that trademark rights in Israel can only be exhausted when a product with the applicable trademark is sold by the owner of the local trademark. e.g.  only Schweppes products sold by the local holder of the Schweppes trademark can be deemed to fall under the doctrine of exhaustion of rights. The Supreme Court ruled that parallel import of similar drinks under the same mark that are manufactured by a foreign manufacture who may lawfully own the mark in his territory but not in Israel, cannot be regarded as legitimate exhaustion of rights[2]. With that, parallel import rules and indirectly the Doctrine of Exhaustion of Rights, are, de facto, bypassed.

Confused? So am I.

Going back to Lennon’s signed ‘Double Fantasy’ album bought by Chapman, since he left it in the Dakota entrance planter, it cannot be regarded as his property as well and in any case, I fail to see a court that will accept his claim of ownership to that $900,000 questionable legacy.

[1] Civil Appeal 10717/05 Florist De Kwakel et al v. Baruch Hajjaj et al (3.9.2013)

[2] Civil Appeal 7934/20 Jafora Tabori Ltd. v. Ben Shlush Import and Export Ltd. (5.7.2022)

Adi Barkan-Lev

About Adi Barkan-Lev

An experienced attorney specializing in Intellectual Property matters. Providing consulting, prosecution and legal services in all areas of Intellectual Property, including copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs, patents, commercial wrongs, counterfeit goods and imitations.