Sid Vicious, Julieraptor, and the Ownership of Fossils

There is a thriving market in fossils, much of which can be found on-line. Extinctions, Inc (www.extinctions.com) claim to have the ‘… largest, most complete, and most detailed fossil websites on the internet’ and claim to have been selling fossils for over thirty years. A visitor to their extensive website can purchase the fossil of the week (this week it is a mosasaurus anceps tooth and a shark tooth preserved in the same rock) for US$ 99-. The visitor can also purchase the ‘DinoStore item of the week’ (this week it is a dinosaur tooth from Morocco), also for US$99-. Fossils Direct (www.fossilsdirect.co.uk) advertise themselves as the ‘Premier supplier of high quality British fossils for sale.’ They advertise an impressive range of fossils at prices starting from under £10-. Two Guys Fossils (http://www.twoguysfossils.com/dino_jurassicbones.htm) claim to be the ‘world’s largest dealer of Jurassic age dinosaur bones’. They currently advertise an impressive range of dinosaur bones at prices up to US$1000- for a 19 inch long camptosaurus femur.
 

With large amounts of money to be made in the sale of fossils it should be no surprise that paleontologists, who may be more used to operating in the not-for-profit world of museums, are occasionally tempted to try to make money illegally. Recently it has been alleged that amateur paleontologist Nathan L. Murphy gave into temptation and falsely claimed ownership of a fossil of a new species of raptor, which was potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/us/22fossil.html). According to Montana law officials the raptor was in fact discovered by geologist Mark Thomson on a field trip organized by Mr Murphy. The discovery was made on private land leased by Joann and Howard Hammond and owned by Bruce Bruckner. Thomson named it ‘Julieraptor’ after his sister. Mr Murphy, who had had entered into a deal with the Hammonds to share the profits from any fossils that he might discover on their land later claimed that the raptor bones, which he referred to as ‘Sid Vicous’, were discovered by him, rather than Thomson, elsewhere. Unfortunately for Murphy, Thomson recognized Sid Vicious as being identical with Julieraptor and alerted the Hammonds who advised Mr Bruckner, who filed a complaint.

One cluster of moral issues that is raised here is the issue of criminal activity and how to respond to it. In this context these issues seem clear enough. If Mr Murphy was found to be in possession of items that belong to another person and has them in his possession without the consent of the legitimate owner of those items then he has stolen those items and should be punished in accordance with the laws of the area that apply to theft. The punishment in question should act as a deterrent to others who might seek to commit similar crimes. However, a deeper and more interesting set of moral issues are raised by the very assumption that the owners of private tracts of land are entitled to own the fossils that happen to be found on that land. Ownership of land confers a bundle of rights on the owner which are stipulated by society at large. But it’s not clear why society should agree to include the right to control and re-sell fossils found on private land in that bundle of rights, especially given that this does not obviously benefit society.

Society might be benefited by including ownership of fossils in that bundle of rights if the result of doing so was that such fossils were to end up in public museums and/or were available to scientists for study. However, what seems to result from individual ownership of fossils is that many fossils end up in private collections. I have no objection to private fossil collections per se, but I do not see why society at large should agree to allow a system of ownership whereby chance discoveries benefit a few individual property owners and a few individual collectors and do not also benefit society in general. A system whereby fossils found on private land were considered to be the property of the state and under which private land owners were provided with incentives to allow the representatives of the state to collect those fossils strikes me as a fairer system and one which the many who do not currently benefit from fossil discoveries on private land might be more inclined to accept.

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One Response to Sid Vicious, Julieraptor, and the Ownership of Fossils

  • It’s interesting also to think how various other thoughts about how the state ought to respond to things found on one’s land mesh with this. E.g. if people own fossils found on their land, does this mean that they also own other things found on their land, such as dangerous unexploded bombs? I have a hunch that landowners who discover an unexploded bomb dating, say, from the Second World War might have a case for asking the state to come and help remove it safely, even if any explosion poses no danger to anyone other than the landowner. If that’s right, then it seems that landowners are entitled to refuse to suffer the costs of certain items on their land that they did not place there – in which case, for consistency, perhaps they shouldn’t be entitled to the benefits of such items either.

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