In 1565, during a battle between France and Spain, the French vessel La Trinité set sail from France to Florida with an eye toward curtailing Spain’s foothold in the New World. Unfortunately, La Trinité sank in Cape Canaveral on the northeast coast of Florida before it could finish this mission. The wreck remained hidden in those waters until 2016 when salvor Bobby Pritchett discovered the ship, a discovery that triggered a complex legal battle over the cannonball, pickaxe, and ballast stones that lay inside the ship.
As an opening gambit in Florida federal court, the French government claimed ownership of the artifacts exhumed from La Trinité under the U.S. Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004 which allows the originating country of embarkation to claim ownership of any military vessel embarked on a military mission. In 2018, the admiralty division of the U.S. district court in Florida ruled in favor of France and allowed the French government to claim the lost relics of La Trinité, marking the first time a foreign country had successfully secured protection under the Sunken Military Craft Act.
The saga continued, though, when Pritchett turned his focus to the state government of Florida. Prior to the La Trinité case, standard Florida practice provided for the profits of a shipwreck discovery to be divided between the salvor (80%) and the state government (20%). So, instead of appealing the admiralty division’s decision, Pritchett launched a new suit against the state of Florida for intellectual property violations, citing the improper sharing of GPS coordinates of La Trinité with France without his knowledge. He claimed that his company amassed the archeological knowledge by documenting the locations and photographs of everything they surveyed for 10 years. In the end, Pritchett was unsuccessful and was ordered to return the artifacts from the shipwreck to the Florida Department of State. Florida and France then declared that they would enter into a research partnership.
In addition to the Sunken Military Craft Act, governments can potentially find protections of their underwater cultural artifacts under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act grants ownership of abandoned or embedded ships to the state that owns the land in which the ship is embedded, and states are allowed to institute a permit system for underwater archaeology. The UNESCO Convention provides explicit protection to underwater cultural heritage which is defined as a “trace of human existence at least partially under water periodically for at least a century.”
To further archaeological care of artifacts, current legal developments in underwater cultural heritage such as the La Trinité case have begun to depart from a system that previously favored the salvors.
Additionally, similar to many of the global challenges the courts face in the 21 st century, technology advancements in in radar, sonar, scuba diving, detection equipment, computers, and GPS will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of underwater cultural heritage.
The sinking of the world famous Titanic was only the beginning of the ship's saga, since 1985, the Titanic has been the subject of on going legal disputes, shaping the way we look at the protection of underwater cultural heritage and the law of salvage.
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On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank after striking an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, claiming more than 1,500 lives. The shipwreck would remain missing for over 70 years until September 1, 1985, when Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered the ship and its debris nearly 12,000 feet below sea level. In an immediate response the international community began taking a closer look at the safety of our seas as well as taking measures to protect the cultural heritage and memory of sites with such lasting important historical significance. By 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted in response to the Titanic disaster and it addressed the minimum safety measures merchant ships must take such as standards of safety equipment, operation, and signatory flags. While SOLAS served to protect the future of humankind’s safety on the water, other measures have been taken to preserve what lies deep below. The now infamous wreck transformed the world’s approach to maritime preservation law and began a dialogue around the legal quandaries which continue to plague the Titanic’s memory. Fiercely debated questions remain: who should have access to the shipwreck? Should the wreck be under private or public control? Should artifacts be removed? To name a few. Here, we review just a small part of the legal history of the Titanic.
In 1987, Titanic Ventures Limited Partnership (TVLP) and the U.S. Navy returned to the wreck. This joint operation salvaged approximately 1,800 artifacts.
In 1992, Marex, Inc. brought a case to the United States Federal Court in the Eastern District of Virginia for salvage rights to the Titanic. However, the court found that TVLP had first and exclusive rights to the site as salvor and the court entered a permanent injunction against Marex, Inc. from participating in any salvage operations of the Titanic. 
Prior to the 2011 ruling, in 2010 the Titanic came under protection of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act which designated the Titanic wreck site as an archaeological resource site. This designation allowed a non-recovery and non-contact research expedition to proceed in August of 2010. The expedition revealed an enormous amount of modern material presence on and near the site such as memorial plaques, garbage, discarded dive equipment, and even the ashes of Mel Fisher. Due to these findings, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) released a circular to alert the involved international governments to take action. Just several months later, and on the 100th year anniversary of the wreck, the Titanic officially came under the protection of the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Convention (2001) with an emphasis on in situ preservation for the site.
Since then, the site had remained largely untouched and, per legislation the 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act (Public Law 115-31), the site lies under specific protections. Section 113 of the Act specifically provides for the protection of the RMS Titanic wreck site as a memorial not to be disturbed or physically altered in the pursuit of research, exploration, or salvage. Thus, the orders of the Eastern District of Virginia have largely been followed as RMST is unable to alter, touch, or take anything off of the ship without permission, though the company has been able to retrieve items from the field of debris surrounding the ship.
Courtesy of NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
Now, just a month since the 108th anniversary, attempts for an international treaty to allow international governmental protection over the Titanic are stalled and the fate of the site remains at the mercy of the court.
On May 19, 2020, RMST once again won a battle in the Eastern District of Virginia and the organization was granted approval for an expedition to recover the Marconi Radio from the wreckage. In this case, RMST plans to use robots to detach the radio from the ship, though RMST has yet to secure funding for the mission. It will be the first time explorers have been allowed to alter the site. While the ultimate goal may be, as the court declares, an attempt to preserve the legacy of history, RMST argues that the NOAA “wants to wrest control of shipwrecks away from courts and companies... [seeking] ‘to jettison the law of the sea, developed over centuries.’”Whereas, the NOAA maintains its position that “the Titanic site should be protected and preserved where it is, while the Marconi is “standard off-the-shelf” equipment of the time that has little value outside the ship.”According to explorers and oceanographers, the Titanic is rapidly deteriorating and, without any intervention, may collapse soon. In other words, time is running out for RMST to recover the radio, among other artifacts, a murky future only time will tell.
For more information go to https://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_titanic.html
 Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 805 F. Supp. 375, 377 (E.D. Va. 1992), rev’d on procedural grounds, Marex Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 2 F.3d 544 (4th Cir. 1993).
 R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 920 F. Supp. 96 (E.D. Va. 1996).
 R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. Wrecked & Abandoned Vessel, 742 F. Supp. 2d 784 (E.D. Va. 2010)
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