Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Language of Ownership

Smithsonian's April issue has an article about who owns fossils. The jumping-off point is about a private enthusiast who has spent a fortune unearthing a particular fossil in Harding County, SD, who hopes to sell it for big bucks. But Harding County thinks they should get more than a 10% cut. I have no opinion on the merits of the case either way, but the language of the scientists involved is interesting.
For scientists, commercial excavation of fossils - legal or not - raises troubling questions. "For me," says Mark Norell, chairman and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of History in New York City, "the big concern with all this private digging is that it may be robbing science of valuable knowledge." (Italics mine)

and later,

The Smithsonian's Carrano says all scientifically significant fossil specimens...should be placed in museums for study in perpetuity...Let's retain those significant ones for study. (Italics mine)
It's an easy POV to understand. As I have never really thought it out before, I think I have always just accepted this a s the proper attitude to take. Fossils don't belong to anyone, they belong to all of us. Even more than a county or even national government claim, such things belong to all mankind. The government is just the closest proxy for ownership to be in charge of something so that scientists can study it. Because such things really belong to Science! The scientists quoted above clearly subscribe to this view. They are absolutely clear that anything of significance belongs to them. To do otherwise is to rob them. They have prior ownership which they can choose to retain.

Folks get sticky if they believe they own something by right and someone else is trying to take it from them. It often prevents objective thinking. In this case, the belief is that they will use it for good, to benefit all of us. Why should I have a problem with that?

Now that I look at the issue, I do have a problem with it. Where do these ownership lines extend for items of potential scientific value? Let's look at hard cases. A poor country finds something that a private collector is willing to pay $8M for. The national museum says, no, it's ours, give it to us. The people say no, we'd rather have food, thanks. Or buy it for $8M yourself.

The question of direct benefit also comes into play. People who really like fossils get some pleasure out to the information, but what is the actual benefit to mankind? There are some discoveries where we might project an immediate benefit, but fossil finds have such potential only at farther removes. We learn more about geology or biology that might help us out in, oh, mining, or genetics, which could in turn be leveraged into something for industry or medicine, but it's hard to make a nice tight connection. Fossils, even really cool ones, are something we are interested in for filling in gaps in knowlege, which we hope in genral will benefit us. But it's a stretch. I can see where people would say, "no, give us the cash, thanks."


Donna B. said...

This reminds me of the arguments for and against mineral rights.

In some states, the rights essentially belong to the state. In others, they can be sold separate from the surface rights.

In Louisiana, for example, one owns the rights to all minerals under their land -- IF no one has purchased and mined them within the last ten years.

In Texas, when you buy the mineral rights, you own them outright. They are separate from the surface.

If you buy 20 acres of land, what exactly do you own? How far below the surface does your ownership extend?

States also define surface rights differently. Louisiana collects a severance tax on timber, while Texas does not. Both states collect a severance tax on oil and gas.

In other states, it's water and grazing rights that are "owned" in different ways.

Sam L. said...

So, if the "state" owns something, but doesn't know that that something actually exists, or where that something is, it would seem that the finder should get a finder's fee.

Same for "Science".

I think it's much like having the IRS figure out my income tax bill, incorrectly, and then charge me penalties and interest for getting it wrong. Good faith efforts aren't what they used to be, even if they weren't even then.

Anna said...

that reminds me of a book i read once about the global trade in antiques/artifacts. the author of the book was trying to argue that they belong to "museums" and "the people" but he unwittingly exposed the fact that musems are also crooked, run by crooked human beings, and that sometimes a collector will take better care of something than a museum. it was a really interesting read.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever been in favor of the idea that the state owns everything and anything unless it generously allows citizens of its choice to own them.

As to the scientists, I might be tempted to agree if they would state beforehand how much is enough. Otherwise any scientist anywhere, any museum anywhere, can claim it needs this fossil or artifact for its collection, because the people it serves don't have 300 examples of 19th century Hopi basket-weaving like that big museum in Chicago.

Rob said...

I own both meteorites and fossils. Nothing super special but exciting for me.

Some points.

1. Many fossils, if not found and collected will just weather away. So collecting should be encouraged.

2. I have had the honor of collecting under permits on government land and the finds that were good enough to be declared "museum quality" were sent off to the museum collection. That seems fair.

3. I believe that fossils or meteorites found on private land often are the property of the land owner. That makes sense.

There is a balance to be struck here and as pointed out state laws can differ.