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18.4: Negotiation and Transfer of Documents of Title (or Commodity Paper)

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Understand how commodity paper operates in the sale of goods.
    2. Recognize when the transferee of a properly negotiated document of title gets better rights than her transferor had and the exceptions to this principle.

    Overview of Negotiability

    We have discussed in several places the concept of a document of title (also called commodity paper). That is a written description, identification, or declaration of goods authorizing the holder—usually a bailee—to receive, hold, and dispose of the document and the goods it covers. Examples of documents of title are warehouse receipts, bills of lading, and delivery orders. The document of title, properly negotiated (delivered), gives its holder ownership of the goods it represents. It is much easier to pass around a piece of paper representing the ownership interest in goods than it is to pass around the goods themselves.

    It is a basic feature of our legal system that a person cannot transfer more rights to property than he owns. It would follow here that no holder of a document of title has greater rights in the goods than the holder’s transferor—the one from whom she got the document (and thus the goods). But there are certain exceptions to this rule; for example, the power of a merchant in certain circumstances to transfer title to goods, even though the merchant himself did not have title to them. A critically important exception to the general rule arises when certain types of paper are sold; for example, commercial paper such as checks and notes. To conclude this chapter, we discuss the rule as it applies to documents of title, sometimes known as commodity paper.

    The Elements and Effect of Negotiation

    If a document of title is “negotiable” and is “duly negotiated,” the purchaser can obtain rights greater than those of the storer or shipper. In the following discussion, we refer only to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), although federal law also distinguishes between negotiable and nonnegotiable documents of title (some of the technical details in the federal law may differ, but these are beyond the scope of this book).

    Negotiable Defined

    Any document of title, including a warehouse receipt and a bill of lading, is negotiable or becomes negotiable if by its terms the goods are to be delivered “to bearer or to the order of” a named person.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 7-104(1)(a). All other documents of title are nonnegotiable. Suppose a bill of lading says that the goods are consigned to Tom Thumb but that they may not be delivered unless Tom signs a written order that they be delivered. Under Section 7-104(2), that is not a negotiable document of title. A negotiable document of title must bear words such as “Deliver to the bearer” or “deliver to the order of Tom Thumb.” These are the “magic words” that create a negotiable document.

    Duly Negotiated

    To transfer title effectively through negotiation of the document of title, it must be “duly negotiated.” In general terms, under Section 7-501 of the UCC, a negotiable document of title is duly negotiated when the person named in it indorses (signs it over—literally “on the back of”) and delivers it to a holder who purchases it in good faith and for value, without any notice that someone else might have a claim against the goods, assuming the transaction is in the regular course of business or financing. Note that last part: assuming the transaction is in the regular course of business. If you gave your roommate a negotiable document of title in payment for a car you bought from her, your roommate would have something of value, but it would not have been duly negotiated. Paper made out “to bearer” (bearer paper) is negotiated by delivery alone; no indorsement is needed. A holder is anyone who possesses a document of title that is drawn to his order, indorsed to him, or made out “to bearer.”


    As a general rule, if these requirements are not met, the transferee acquires only those rights that the transferor had and nothing more. And if a nonnegotiable document is sold, the buyer’s rights may be defeated. For example, a creditor of the transferor might be entitled to treat the sale as void.

    Under Section 7-502 of the UCC, however, if the document is duly negotiated, then the holder acquires (1) title to the document, (2) title to the goods, (3) certain rights to the goods delivered to the bailee after the document itself was issued, and (4) the right to have the issuer of the document of title hold the goods or deliver the goods free of any defense or claim by the issuer.

    To contrast the difference between sale of goods and negotiation of the document of title, consider the plight of Lucy, the owner of presidential campaign pins and other political memorabilia. Lucy plans to hold them for ten years and then sell them for many times their present value. She does not have the room in her cramped apartment to keep them, so she crates them up and takes them to a friend for safekeeping. The friend gives her a receipt that says simply: “Received from Lucy, five cartons; to be stored for ten years at $25 per year.” Although a document of title, the receipt is not negotiable. Two years later, a browser happens on Lucy’s crates, discovers their contents, and offers the friend $1,000 for them. Figuring Lucy will forget all about them, the friend sells them. As it happens, Lucy comes by a week later to check on her memorabilia, discovers what her former friend has done, and sues the browser for their return. Lucy would prevail. Now suppose instead that the friend, who has authority from Lucy to store the goods, takes the cartons to the Trusty Storage Company, receives a negotiable warehouse receipt (“deliver to bearer five cartons”), and then negotiates the receipt. This time Lucy would be out of luck. The bona fide purchaser from her friend would cut off Lucy’s right to recover the goods, even though the friend never had good title to them.

    A major purpose of the concept is to allow banks and other creditors to loan money with the right to the goods as represented on the paper as collateral. They can, in effect, accept the paper as collateral without fear that third parties will make some claim on the goods.

    But even if the requirements of negotiability are met, the document of title still will confer no rights in certain cases. For example, when a thief forges the indorsement of the owner, who held negotiable warehouse receipts, the bona fide purchaser from the thief does not obtain good title. Only if the receipts were in bearer form would the purchaser prevail in a suit by the owner. Likewise, if the owner brought his goods to a repair shop that warehoused them without any authority and then sold the negotiable receipts received for them, the owner would prevail over the subsequent purchaser.

    Another instance in which an apparent negotiation of a document of title will not give the bona fide purchaser superior rights occurs when a term in the document is altered without authorization. But if blanks are filled in without authority, the rule states different consequences for bills of lading and warehouse receipts. Under Section 7-306 of the UCC, any unauthorized filling in of a blank in a bill of lading leaves the bill enforceable only as it was originally. However, under Section 7-208, an unauthorized filling in of a blank in a warehouse receipt permits the good-faith purchaser with no notice that authority was lacking to treat the insertion as authorized, thus giving him good title. This section makes it dangerous for a warehouser to issue a receipt with blanks in it, because he will be liable for any losses to the owner if a good-faith purchaser takes the goods.

    Finally, note that a purchaser of a document of title who is unable to get his hands on the goods—perhaps the document was forged—might have a breach of warranty action against the seller of the document. Under Section 7-507 of the UCC, a person who negotiates a document of title warrants to his immediate purchaser that the document is genuine, that he has no knowledge of any facts that would impair its validity, and that the negotiation is rightful and effective. Thus the purchaser of a forged warehouse receipt would not be entitled to recover the goods but could sue his transferor for breach of the warranty.

    Key Takeaway

    It is a lot easier to move pieces of paper around than goods in warehouses. Therefore commercial paper, or commodity paper, was invented: the paper represents the goods, and the paper is transferred from one person to another by negotiation. The holder signs on the back of the paper and indicates who its next holder should be (or foolishly leaves that blank); that person then has rights to the goods and, indeed, better rights. On due negotiation the transferee does not merely stand in the transferor’s shoes: the transferee takes free of defects and defenses that could have been available against the transferor. For a document of title to be a negotiable one, it must indicate that the intention of it is that it should be passed on through commerce, with the words “to bearer” or “to the order of [somebody],” and it must be duly negotiated: signed off on by its previous holder (or without any signature needed if it was bearer paper).

    Exercises \(\PageIndex{1}\)
    1. “George Baker deposited five cardboard boxes in my barn’s loft, and he can pick them up when he wants.” Is this statement a negotiable document of title?
    2. “George Baker deposited five cardboard boxes in my barn’s loft, and he or anybody to his order can pick them up.” Is this statement a negotiable document of title?
    3. Why is the concept of being a holder of duly negotiated documents of title important?

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