To Each Their Own

Michael Heller ’80 and James Salzman (P ’13) illuminate hidden rules of ownership in Mine!

To recline or not to recline? That is the question we face every time we take a flight. We do have buttons on our seats encouraging us to relax and get comfortable. Of course, we also have neighbors who will be constrained as we lean back. 

It’s a question of ownership, Michael Heller ’80—law professor and co-author of Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives—explained to Reuters correspondent and classmate Arshad Mohammed ’80 during a recent Conversation with Friends. Who owns the space that the reclining seat occupies: the individual in the reclining seat, whose recline button creates an attachment between their seat and the space behind, or the person possessing the space in which the seat will lean? 

This attachment vs. possession debate, which applies to how tech giants track your online activities as well as airline seats, is one of what Heller and his co-author, James Salzman (P ’13), call the six simple ownership stories used to claim everything in the world—space, land, property, ideas, money, and more.  

“Most of ownership happens invisibly in the background,” Heller explained. “It sort of steers you through life without you realizing you are being shaped by this very small handful of ownership stories. You don’t realize that airlines are deliberately being ambiguous to sell that space twice. You don’t know that HBO knows you’re stealing and wants you to do that.”

That’s right: When you borrow friends’ passwords to watch your favorite series, streaming services know, tolerate, and even encourage you to do so. As an advanced strategy for customer acquisition, there’s a benefit for these companies in allowing some intellectual property theft to go unprosecuted. 

Intellectual property rights can be relatively lax in areas like fashion or sports plays. Yet copyright extensions for the Walt Disney Company designed to protect the profitable Mickey Mouse have impacted which creative works from the last century can enter the public domain. 

Heller also explained that there is not a single unifying system of ownership, and that the system of ownership for the wealthiest in the United States is far more permissive than it is for most of the country. He contrasts the family ownership stories that have led to “staggering land loss for African American families” in North Carolina with the optional taxation and responsibilities that the ultrawealthy enjoy by taking advantage of South Dakota’s financial protections. 

The wide-ranging conversation between Heller and Mohammed even ventured into outer space: Will the first country to plant a flag on Mars “own” the planet? Heller indicated that First in Time, one of the ownership stories that recurs throughout America’s history of land expansion and expropriation, will play a critical role in this future discussion.

Mohammed noted that with Mickey Mouse, Nemo, and the Flintstones popping up in the text, Mine! isn’t a typical book from a law professor. While the idea for Mine! may have initially stemmed from academic article fatigue, Heller and Salzman decided to write this book from a sense of social obligation. They looked for fun, engaging, and relatable stories that would make the topic approachable to every reader. 

“We decided to write a book that doesn’t have any law mentioned, that makes visible how important ownership is in our daily lives and what people can do about it once they know,” Heller said. Once you read and understand that the six stories undergirding ownership are not that complicated, “I hope it means that you can be a little bit more effective as an advocate for a change, as a citizen and consumer.” 

Watch the full Conversation with Friends between Michael Heller ’80 and Arshad Mohammed ’80 here.

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