May 12, 2013
Tsarnaev Burial Saga Highlights Flaw in the Law of Human Remains
The Worcester (Massachusetts) Police Department reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body was buried in an undisclosed location in the middle of the night this week, bringing an end to a sad, unprecedented soap opera. This controversy has been resolved – but what happens next time? The Tsarnaev burial saga highlights a fundamental flaw in the American law regarding the disposition of human remains.
Despite the calls of protestors to “feed [Tsarnaev] to the sharks” or “toss him in the landfill,” it is a basic premise of American law that we treat human remains with respect. In fact, it is a general principal of law that every person who dies in the United States is entitled to the decent treatment and disposition of their remains. “Abuse of a corpse” is a crime in many states. A number of state even have statutes forbidding cursing in the presence of a corpse.
But while the law promises that remains will be treated with respect, the government has very little power to enforce that promise.In the United States, the next of kin of the deceased are tasked with the obligation and financial responsibility to properly dispose of their remains. In most states, the decedent himself has the right to have his remains disposed of in the manner and location that he prefers.
But this system assumes two things. The first assumption is that someone will take responsibility for the remains of every person. Although this assumption is generally correct, sadly, bodies are also found from time to time which cannot be identified. Some people die without family, friends, or funds. In those cases, government often has the authority and responsibility to make burial or cremation arrangements.
The second assumption is that the private parties integral to the process (primarily funeral homes and cemeteries) will cooperate and provide needed services.
Since the government plays little to no role, these private parties are essential. Bodies are normally taken from the place of death, or from the coroner’s office, by a funeral director who voluntarily agrees to take custody of the body. Although funeral directors are licensed by the state, in the United States they are private actors and are not government officials. Funeral directors generally prepare bodies for burial or cremation, and make arrangements for final disposition.
There are a wide variety of cemeteries in the United States. In some states, like Massachusetts, state law requires each town to have a municipal cemetery. But most cemeteries are owned by private parties – religious organizations, non-profit organizations, families, fraternal organizations, as well as for-profit enterprises. The law recognizes cemeteries as essential public services. They are exempt from property taxes (even if owned by a for-profit company) and generally may not be mortgaged. But with the exception of cemeteries owned by municipalities, cemeteries are not under the management or control of the government.
The assumption that these private parties would play their role every time was so ingrained that no one had cause to question it before the Tsarnaev burial saga began. After all, many people have committed heinous acts in American history, and there was little controversy about the disposition of their remains. But this time, we discovered, the system absolutely breaks down when nearly everyone refuses to provide services.
The assumption that people will cooperate is so essential that the law does not even contemplate what happens if they do not. This incident has highlighted this fundamental flaw in the law. The government has no power to force a funeral director, cemetery, or crematory to accept a body. Tsarnaev’s family was lucky that Peter Stefan agreed to take the case in the first place, although his business has undoubtedly suffered a heavy price for his willingness to do what he considered to be the right thing. “I’m not burying a terrorist, I’m burying a dead body,” Mr. Stefan said at the beginning of the debacle. “We’re trying to exercise some character here.”
People have every right to be angry with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He took deliberate action to cause death and misery, to terrorize the people of Boston. But Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead. Protesting the disposition of his remains did nothing but cost the taxpayers of Worcester money and fed several news cycles. Nothing positive resulted.
It is sad that a system that is dependent upon everyone exercising character has shown such a fatal weakness. It is also sad that the only way to ensure that this will not happen in the future is for state legislatures to adopt laws which give the government power to interfere with what has always been the exclusive province of families, religious communities, and other private actors: the treatment and disposition of human remains.
August 13, 2012
Rethinking Laws Permitting the Sale of Human Remains
I'm putting the finishing touches on my article proposing a limited property interest in human remains. As I've presented this paper to various groups over the past year, one critique I've often received is that granting a property interest in human remains will lead to the commercialization of those remains. I just posted a piece on Huffington Post which addresses that critique, and points of the amazing array of human remains for sale on the Internet. On Ebay, you can currently pick up a set of human ribs for $20.50 (after six bids), an articulated hand for $142.50 (after 14 bids), a complete spine with pelvis bone for $300, a skull for $1300, or an entire human skeleton (including a display case) for the "Buy It Now" price of $1900.
August 22, 2011
Rausch on Abortion and Property Rights
Rebecca Rausch (Seattle - Teaching Fellow) has posted Reframing Roe: Property Over Privacy (Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice) on SSRN. Here's the abstract:
Roe v. Wade has received much criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Though the perspectives of the two camps differ significantly, players from each share at least one common critique of the landmark decision. Specifically, both sides are skeptical about the lack of an express Constitutional right to privacy, on which the Supreme Court in Roe based its decision to find a “fundamental” right to abortion. This lack of Constitutional context and legal history renders Roe vulnerable. In addition, pro-choice advocates find fault with the privacy basis because it yields no positive rights to funding or access support from the government; it is relegated to the land of negative rights, which might provide the right woman with reproductive choice free from government intrusion, but for the wrong woman - one with limited resources - the so-called “choice” becomes nonexistent.
This article investigates whether the absence of positive rights and the foundational flaw of the right to privacy might be adequately addressed by reframing Roe in the language of property - specifically, a woman’s property right in her uterus. Assuming arguendo the anti-choice tenet that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, separate from the woman carrying it, the article sets forth an argument that the fetus is an unwanted trespasser in the woman’s uterus whom the woman has a right to eject. Further, the article posits that this property-based notion of abortion might give rise to government funding for abortions based on a Constitutional obligation to maintain a system designed to protect women’s uterine property, similar to states’ obligations to maintain a police force in order to protect other forms of private property, including the removal of trespassers. In short, this article provides a new basis for abortion rights that takes advantage of the long-standing traditional notions of property law and the right to exclude, as well as the public support that attaches to that right, manifested through anti-trespass systems. After establishing the property-based argument, the article explores what might be gained, and what might be lost, by adopting such a premise for abortion rights and access. Among these considerations is whether the anti-trespass scheme might push the abortion discourse beyond the typical polarizing rhetoric surrounding both the pro-choice and anti-choice camps, thus generating space for forward movement and meaningful work.
May 27, 2011
Battle Over the President's Body
The facts are quite Jerry Springer-esque. In 1948, President Pérez married his first cousin, Blanca Rodríguez. Then, in 1966 he began an intimate relationship with another woman, Cecilia Matos. Hoping to end his marriage, President Pérez initiated divorce proceedings against Rodríguez. She contested them, and a Venezuelan court refused to end the marriage. Pérez then changed tactics. In 1999, he moved with Matos to Miami, where he died last December.
The legal problem is that both Matos and Rodríguez want control over Pérez's burial. Specifically, Rodríguez hopes to return Pérez's body to Venezuela, while Matos wants to bury him in Miami. Florida law gives the surviving spouse priority in choosing where to bury the deceased. In this case, that's Rodríguez, who was still married to the ex-president at his death, even though she hadn't him since he left Venezuela in 1999. However, the law also states that if the deceased's intent can be established by clear and convincing evidence, it can outweigh a spouse's wishes.
If I was betting on this case, I'd put my money on Pérez staying in Miami. First, Matos claims she and Pérez purchased side-by-side burial plots. If true, that seems like pretty solid evidence of his intent. Second, there's a political sub-plot here. Hugo Chavez, the current president of Venezuela, appears to bear a pretty serious grudge against Pérez. I doubt a judge in the U.S. will want to give Chavez the opportunity to use Pérez's burial as some kind of political stunt.
May 25, 2011
Disinterring Leather Man
A fascinating story from Ossining, New York caught by eye this morning in the New York Times. Local history buffs from New York and Connecticut (and fans of Pearl Jam) may already be aware that back in the 1860s-1880s, a man known only as “Leather Man” walked a 365 mile circuit through at least 41 small towns on a 34-day cycle. Apparently he was so compulsively prompt on this tour that you could set your calendar by him. Leather Man was a source of fascination during his lifetime. Apparently “thousands” of articles about him appeared in local newspapers
at the time, documenting his travels. He never spoke, lived in lean-to’s or caves, and wore a 60-pound suit of clothing made from discarded boots (thus, his name).
Leather Man died in 1889 in one of his regular shelters near Ossining, New York. He was buried in the pauper section of Sparta Cemetery at government expense, without a tombstone. In 1953, a bronze plaque was added to the fieldstone marking his grave. It identifies him as “Jules Bourglay,” a native of Lyon, France. But researchers say that there is no more reason to believe this origin story than dozens of others. Leather Man is a mystery. His grave, situated along busy Route 9, is a stop on dozens of local tours. The elderly and school children, along with curious individuals, visit his grave often.
[More after the jump]When Leather Man was interred in Sparta Cemetery, it was owned by the First Presbyterian Church of Ossining. In 1984, the cemetery was deeded to the Ossining Historical Society Museum, a New York not-for-profit corporation. And here’s where the story gets interesting in the present day. Two things about Leather Man’s internment bothered the Historical Society.
First, the pauper’s section of Sparta Cemetery is apparently treacherously close to the right-of-way for Route 9, a busy highway with no shoulder. There was therefore a public safety concern about the location of such a popular grave. The Historical Society desired to disinter Leather Man and reinter him in an empty grave closer to the center of Sparta Cemetery, in a location described in court filings as a “safer and more dignified setting.” (The petition and order can be downloaded here.)
Second, there is significant curiosity about Leather Man. Was he really French? Was he autistic? What did he look like? Since the Historical Society desired to move his grave for safety reasons, it seemed like a good idea to take the opportunity to answer all of those lingering questions. Therefore, the Historical Society petitioned the Supreme Court in the County of Westchester for permission to do the following:
“(1) the removal of the remains of the Decedent from his present burial location in Sparta Cemetery for the purposes of improving the public health and safety;
(2) for the purposes of expanding the historical record, testing including and limited to (a) forensic gross morphological evaluation of the biological life history of Decedent, to be performed within the cemetery without the destruction of remains, after which testing the remains will be reburied; (b) a CT scan of the skull for the purposes of three-dimensional imaging of the cranio-facial features for a reconstruction of the Decedent’s face, without the destruction of the skull, after which testing the remains will be reburied; and (c) DNA testing of a molar and/or fragment of large bone, preferable [sic] from the femur and weighing approximately 4 grams, which will involve the destruction of such dental and/or bone tissue submitted for testing, so as to determine the Decedent’s ancestry; and (d) stable carbon isotope and trace element analysis to determine the diet of the Decedent which will involve the destruction of such dental and/or bone tissue submitted for testing; and
(3) reburial of the remains at Sparta Cemetery in an appropriate location away from New York State Route 9.”
The Historical Society relied upon two New York statutes to give it the authority to (1) disinter and reinter Leather Man; and (2) obtain the biological material necessary for the testing described above.
First, the Historical Society, as owner of Sparta Cemetery, alleged to be the only party with standing to remove his remains pursuant to New York Not-for-Profit Corporations Law Section 1510. Leather Man died anonymously in 1889 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Therefore, the potential identities of other categories of persons with standing (the burial plot owners, the surviving spouse of the decedent, the children of full age of the decedent, and the parents of the decedent) were fairly moot.
Second, the Historical Society alleged that it had the right to make an anatomical gift of the biological material of Leather Man pursuant to New York Public Health Law Section 4301(h). Pursuant to the New York anatomical gift law, if a person did not make an anatomical gift, a list of persons, in order of priority, have the right to make anatomical gifts on behalf of a decedent “in the absence of actual notice of contrary indications by the decedent … or reason to believe that an anatomical gift is contrary to the decedent’s religious or moral beliefs.” Not surprisingly, Leather Man left no documentation that, 122 years later, provides actual notice of a contrary indication to make an anatomical gift. Since, you know, we don’t even know his name. Anyway, the Historical Society, presumably as owners of the Sparta Cemetery, alleged that they fall into the final class of persons able to make an anatomical gift – “any other person authorized or under the obligation to dispose of the body.” Since the body was disposed of quite some time ago, long before the Historical Society was founded, this doesn’t ring true to me, but apparently no one contested the argument.
The Historical Society was granted permission by the Supreme Court of New York, County of Westchester, to exhume Leather Man and conduct the testing. Said exhumation occurred last week and, much like Geraldo Rivera’s much-hyped opening of the Al Capone vault, found nothing other than coffin nails and dirt. No biological material was found to be tested.
I find this story to be fascinating. I have blogged previously about my interest in “Written in Bone: Forensics Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake,” the Smithsonian’s CSI-type exhibit about the deceased residents of Jamestown, Virginia, and wondered about the legal authority to disinter non-Native American human remains, conduct testing, and place them in a museum. I haven’t been able to find a developed body of law on this subject, and I think that the Historical Society’s court filings demonstrate that gap. My preliminary read is that the Historical Society was successful in court because (1) they controlled the remains which were buried in a pauper’s grave in a cemetery they owned; and (2) no living descendants or others with legal standing came forward to protest. To the latter point, none of the statutes relied upon by the Historical Society would have given any legal standing to descendants other than surviving spouse, parents, and children. For a person who died in 1889, no living descendants would appear to have standing in New York. I find it exceedingly clever (if disingenuous) that the Historical Society used the anatomical gift law as its legal basis for using biological material to satisfy historical curiosity. I’m a totally geeked-out history buff but, seriously, how does finding out whether Leather Man was autistic, or French, improve the human condition? If I own the cemetery in which they are buried, can I dig up anyone I’d like to satisfy whatever curiosity I may have about them? To be fair, the Historical Society and cooperating scientists stressed that Leather Man’s remains would be treated with respect and dignity. I have absolutely no reason to doubt that. But this story raises a question that continues to fascinate me. How do we, as a society and a system of laws, reconcile the “rights” of the dead with the needs and desires of the living?
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March 02, 2011
Cemeteries, Land Use, and Cultural Differences
As readers of this blog may recall, one of my main research interests is the law of cemeteries and the relationship between the law, custom, and commercial interests in determining how Americans dispose of our remains. I am fortunate enough to receive regular e-mails from students, colleagues and friends, sharing an Internet link to a stories related to this area. (It's a little disturbing that so many people associate me with death, but it is also very nice of them to help me with my research!)
My colleague Barbara Lentz recently e-mailed me a link to a story from Slate.com by an American author sharing her family's experience with the Greek burial system. The author's grandparents moved back to their native Greece in the 1990s, eventually died and were buried there. At that point, the author's family learned that in Greece, graves are rented for a maximum of three years. When the lease term is up, the remains are removed from the individual grave to a communal ossuary.
From an American perspective, the Greek practices are horrific. Our default position is that a grave is permanent, with superstition, secular cultural norms, and religious beliefs all arguing against disturbing a grave (See, e.g. Poltergeist). But of course that isn't the entire story. Why are there few graveyards in Manhattan and Chicago, and none in San Francisco? Because they were all moved to the suburbs (or paved over) when the cities began to expand. We would all have difficulty imagining that it would be acceptable to disinter Grandma and put her skeleton in a museum, but the Smithsonian has a fascinating CSI-type exhibit on the dead of Jamestown, Virginia -- all of whom were disinterred, examined, and put in a museum. We all draw lines regarding the rights of (or respect for) the dead and the interests of the living. I'm really interested in where Americans draw those lines, and why.
If you are also interested in this subject and attending ALPS, I will be participating in a Saturday morning panel at 8:30am. And if you run across any interesting stories, or have some to share from your own experience, please feel free to e-mail them to me!
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February 20, 2011
Collective Bargaining As a Property Rights Issue
There's an interesting thread over at the Faculty Lounge about the Wisconsin battle over collective bargainging rights for public employees. Professor Calvin Massey opines that collective bargaining by public employee unions should be illegal. Personally, I think that position is illogical and even dangerous, but perhaps that is because I tend to view most things through the lens of property rights.
I hope it is beyond debate that one has a property right in one's labor (confederate flag raisings notwithstanding).
That being true, it seems to me that advocates of private property rights should be adamant that one has the decision right to alienate, or not alienate, one's property on terms of one's own choosing. If, for example, I want to sell my house in concert with my neighbors because together we can obtain a higher price, that's my business. And that's true even if the buyer is the government. Free market advocates would be outraged if the government told me otherwise, no?
So if we substitute "labor" for "house," why on earth should the result be different?
That's why I believe that opposition to collective bargaining is fundamentally inconsistent with respect for private property rights. Protecting private property rights means protecting the right of each person to attempt to strike a bargain for the alienation of her labor. Of course, potential buyers of labor should be free to refuse to purchase until they find a price they are willing to pay; but limiting collective bargaining limits not merely the price a buyer is willing to pay, but also the ability of the seller to bargain for her labor -- her private property. Therefore, limiting collective bargaining means limiting rights in private property.
Yet many of the same people who claim to value private property rights favor eliminating collective bargaining by public employees. That position is inconsistent at best.
If I am wrong, please correct me.
Mark A. Edwards
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November 23, 2010
Frequent readers may remember that an important tenet of my property teaching philosophy is that the struggle over property rights has a central place in history. I've argued that we might undersell the importance of property rights by focusing so intensively on the doctrinal trees that we miss the political-economic forest.
One way I like to discomfort my students, and bring into stark relief the historical importance of property rights, is by examining the emancipation of slaves through the lens of the Takings Clause.
The Takings Clause may seem (and, I think, is) a somewhat callous and inadequate lens through which to view the abject horror of slavery, but that's exactly how some framed the issue 150 years ago. In a debate on the Senate floor, Henry Clay (for one) argued that emancipation of slaves would be a taking of private property, requiring just compensation of the slave owners. Anticipating the reply that emancipation could not be a taking because humans could never have legitimately been property, Clay said (I like to imagine coolly), "That is property which the law says is property."
In both my first year course, and my Comparative Property Rights seminar, I make my students debate that proposition. I ask them simply: Is it true? Most say no. So then I ask: If law can't tell us what is property, then what can? No one, myself included, seems to be able to answer that.
All that is a prelude to telling you that for the past few weeks, the New York Times has been running a wonderful feature, Disunion, which provides a day-by-day analysis, using primarily contemporary accounts, of the descent into the Civil War immediately preceeding and following Lincoln's election in 1860. For history buffs like me, it's fascinating. I find myself more eagerly concerned about the daily news from November 1860 than the news on the front page.
The news from this week (minus 150 years) has been particularly ominous. Southern state legislatures are meeting to 'discuss' secession in the wake of Lincoln's election, but the extreme rhetoric of the meetings leaves no doubt that horrible violence is at hand. Members of the cabinet of the sitting President are preparing to join them. The federal government is teetering.
Meanwhile, President-elect Lincoln has remained maddeningly silent. Finally, the pressure becomes unbearable, and through Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, Lincoln attempts to reassure the South: "when Trumbull told the crowd that under Lincoln, all the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs, including the protection of property, those in the know believed they were hearing the words of the president-elect." The meaning of Lincoln's pledge to protect property was unmistakable. Lincoln was attempting to tell the South that, in Clay's words, that was property which the law said was property -- including human beings. For Lincoln's admirers, that pledge may come as a shock. He was not yet fully committed to emancipation.
But, of course, nothing Lincoln could say or do would reassure the Southern legislatures. They didn't trust him or the abolitionists who supported him. War was on the horizon. Within five years of that week in November, 600,000 Americans would be dead.
As I like to say to my students, when it comes to property rights, damn right, there will be blood.
Interestingly, in hate-laced rhetoric that resonates today, secessionists cast Lincoln and Vice President-elect Hamlin as something 'other' than bona fide Americans. Southern media and politicians constantly accused Hamlin in particular of having “black blood in him,” or being descended from Native Americans. One Southerner wrote to Lincoln, offering to buy the "intelligent mulatto boy" Hamlin from him.
The Disunion series is a fantastic teaching tool on lots of levels, but it is a treasure trove on the historical centrality of property rights. Check it out.
Mark A. Edwards
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July 25, 2010
The Strange Quasi-Property Status of Corpses.
I'm working on an article about cemeteries, which has led me down several tangential paths. One of the most obvious is the law's treatment of human remains. Pretty interesting stuff. Although at common law there is no express property right in human remains, the nearest relatives of the deceased have a quasi-property right in the remains which arises from their common law duty to bury the dead.
See, for example, Leno v. St. Joseph Hospital, 55 Ill. 2d 114, 117 (1973) ("The principle is firmly established that while in the ordinary sense, there is no property right in a dead body, a right of possession of a decedent's remains devolves upon the next of kin in order to make appropriate disposition thereof, whether by burial or otherwise.")
The confusion about what the common law means by "next of kin," "nearest relatives," etc. has led to some high profile wrangling over the remains of famous people, Anna Nicole Smith probably being the most recent example. Surely there have been countless battles that never reach the newspapers. As with many other legal issues surrounding the final disposition of human remains, it appears that this is an issue that we have collectively ignored and so rely upon a fairly unhelpful common law rather than a comprehensive set of rules.
This brings me to yesterday's New York Times, which describes the efforts of Jack Thorpe, son of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, to relocate his father's remains from Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, to his family's cemetery plot in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma. When the elder Thorpe died of a heart attack in 1953, his third wife Patricia made a curious deal with the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. In exchange for the construction of a monument, perpetual care of the remains, and a roadside attraction, Patricia granted the towns the right to rename themselves "Jim Thorpe."
The children from Jim's first two marriages were divided over this transaction so Jack and his two remaining brothers waited fifty years, until the deaths of their older sisters and stepmother, to mount this challenge. Since Jim Thorpe was a Native American, his sons are suing for the relocation of his remains using the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 to claim that Jack Thorpe, as his son's lineal descendant, has legal claim to his father's remains.
This case gets to the heart of why I find cemeteries so interesting. There is apparently no money involved in this dispute. Instead, fifty years after Jim Thorpe's death, “I want to see him put away properly,” Jack Thorpe said, “I want to put him where he wanted to be.”
You can read the whole article here.
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April 15, 2010
Is that Property which the Law Declares to be Property?
In response to Virginia's celebration of confederate history month, and in connection with teaching takings this week, yesterday I had my property class read Henry Clay's argument against the emancipation of humans held as slaves. Clay's argument was that if emancipation were to occur, it would constitute a taking, and thus was impermissible under the 5th Amendment without just compensation. Since the government was not prepared to provide such compensation, emancipation would be an illegal and unconstitutional act.
Anticipating the rejoinder that there could be no taking if the thing taken were not property, Clay said, "That is property which the law declares to be property." For at least 200 years, he said, both before and after the ratification of the Constitution, humans of African descent had been recognized as private property. They were not just uncompensated labor; they could be alienated, possessed exclusively, and used like other forms of private property, including as security for debt. Generations had relied on the law, and the law told them that slaves were property.
Now, I was not about to ask first-year law students to argue the position that the emanicpation of slaves without full compensation of their former owners was a legally wrong, unconstitutional act. So, I took that position (and, in case there is any misunderstanding here, I'll say now what I said to my class: of course I don't think emancipation was wrong, and I'll kick the @*&%$ of anyone who says otherwise). I then told my class to explain, if they thought I was wrong, why.
I made them focus on whether slaves had ever really been property, as the law had said they were. I did not let them argue too long that the emancipation was not a taking (in the sense that it was merely a regulation that didn't go 'far enough'), or that compensation had already been provided through the slave's labor. There are good arguments for those positions, perhaps, but they also allow us to dodge Clay's provocative claim. So I insisted they tell me: is that property which the law declares to be property?
It was a fascinating discussion, particularly in light of the typical skepticism with which my students had regarded the idea of unenumerated rights the week before when discussing zoning. I'm as skeptical of 'natural law' as the next product of the Enlightenment, and yet . . . . try as we might, we just could not accept that humans had ever legitimately been property simply because the law had declared it. But if that's true, then what is the source of authority that says otherwise? Something greater than the Constitution? And if we say yes, aren't we acknowledging and defending the existence of unenumerated rights, whether implied in the Constitution or not? Isn't that the essence (so to speak) of natural law?
Regardless, it was a fascinating exercise, and one I highly recommend for your property classes.
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April 02, 2010
Avatar: awful but useful
There are some films I eagerly want to watch; there are many I'm completely indifferent to; and there are a few I determinedly avoid. Avatar was one of the latter. I'm grumpy about 'blockbusters' and I can't stand tired old cliched plots. My children will one day tell their therapists about all the cultural references they missed because I wouldn't take them to hit movies.
So it was very odd to find myself watching it in Omnimax 3D, surrounded by law students. Reader, I took my entire Comparative Property Rights seminar to see it.
Here's my review: special effects = impressive; movie = even worse than I feared, and that's saying something. But . . . as a property rights teaching tool? Pretty darn good.
Some of the property issues are obvious: who has rights in the 'unobtanium' (even the name makes me cringe)?
But others are less obvious, more interesting and good teaching tools. [SPOILER ALERT!] For example:
- who owns the avatars? The company that developed them? The people 'inhabiting' them? Or are they human-enough that they are unownable? Interestingly, my students generally agreed that they were the intellectual property of their creators. But the implications of that left them uneasy: owners of property, after all, generally have the right to destroy it. And yet everyone rooted against the company when it attempted to do just that. And if the avatars are property, can they own property? The main character seems to.
- Do the Na'avi have individual property rights, or do they own all property in common? Do the earthlings view them as 'noble savages' who are too pure for private property? Does director James Cameron? In that context, consider the cultural misunderstandings about that very issue that have historically undermined indigenous property rights systems: as Kenneth H. Bobroff explains, the continued misperception that Native American tribes owned all resources in common has had disastrous results for generations of Native Americans.
- What if the Na'avi lived in the United States -- could the government have simply taken their land, compensated them, and been done with it?
- Has James Cameron misappropriated others' creative inventions? After all, believe me, if you've seen Pocahantas or Dances With Wolves, you've seen Avatar, too at a startling level of detail.
- Last property question: Do you get to keep the 3D glasses?
Did you see Avatar? Did you think of the property rights issues? Do your children find you annoying, too?
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