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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 166

Michael Heller & James Salzman — Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives

Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives (book cover)

A hidden set of rules governs who owns what — explaining everything from whether you can recline your airplane seat to why HBO lets you borrow a password illegally — and in this lively and entertaining conversation, two acclaimed law professors reveal how things become “mine.”

“Mine” is one of the first words babies learn. By the time we grow up, the idea of ownership seems natural, whether buying a cup of coffee or a house. But who controls the space behind your airplane seat: you reclining or the squished laptop user behind? Why is plagiarism wrong, but it’s okay to knock-off a recipe or a dress design? Mine! explains these puzzles and many more. Surprisingly, there are just six simple stories that everyone uses to claim everything. Owners choose the story that steers us to do what they want. But we can always pick a different story. This is true not just for airplane seats, but also for battles over digital privacy, climate change, and wealth inequality. As Michael Heller and James Salzman show ownership is always up for grabs.

Shermer and Heller and Salzman discuss:

  • Principles of ownership:

    • first in time,
    • possession is nine-tenths of the law (attachment),
    • finders keepers, losers weepers,
    • my home is my castle: how far up and down?
    • you reap what you sow (product knock offs?; book knock offs?
  • children’s sense of ownership starting with playground toys,
  • knee defender: who owns the rights between seats,
  • Spirit’s 1968 instrumental track Taurus vs. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven,
  • HOV lanes,
  • why HBO tolerates, even encourages, illegal password-sharing,
  • fisheries and the tragedy of the commons (Deadliest Catch TV show),
  • marriage menu,
  • 23andMe: who owns my genetic information?
  • tree huggers vs. solar: who owns sunshine?
  • Disney copyright battles,
  • estate taxes, trusts and wills,
  • Elon Musk gave away the patents on Tesla car systems,
  • negative truthful gossip: more powerful than law,
  • UBI and reparations for Native Americans/African Americans,
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s copyrighted speeches,
  • North American land ownership and Native Americans?
  • Curt Flood: who owns athlete’s careers?
  • Why has there been a 98% drop in African American land ownership?
  • generational wealth, wealth inequality: 1% own 40% of the nation’s wealth: $30 trillion dollar wealth transfer from Baby Boomers to their offspring.

Michael Heller and James Salzman are among the world’s leading authorities on ownership. Heller is the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law at Columbia Law School. He is the author of The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives. Salzman is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, with joint appointments at the UCLA School of Law and the UCSB Bren School of the Environment. He is the author of Drinking Water: A History.

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This episode is sponsored by:

The Great Courses Plus (sponsor)

This episode was released on March 20, 2021.

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