June 2005


When did we, as a society, get so obsessed with the ownership of everything? How do we reconcile the concept of ownership with that of stewardship?

A short time ago, I attended a church dedication ceremony. When I entered the church, I was handed a booklet about the dedication. It was a nicely done document and was well laid out. But as I looked at it, I began to see that it was marred by ugly splotches of copyright data. Everything used in this little brochure was, apparently, the jealously guarded property of somebody else.

If you look at comparable documents that are 10, 25, 50, 100 years old, you see a relentless trend toward the disfiguring of simple documents with acknowledgments of ownership. Declarations of private ownership seem sadly out of place in a document celebrating having a church building to pray in. Can you imagine if the Bible had always been printed with the same rules? It'd have twenty pages of disclaimers in the front and another fifty pages of ownership attribution notices in the back.

Copyrights and Patents were originally devised so as to allow individuals to lay a just claim to the ownership of something that was the product of their own unique mental processes. Stephen Foster, for example, financed his death by alcohol through the sale of songs he wrote, like Old Man River. If the material could not have been copyrighted, then he'd have had a much less marketable commodity. If you wrote a book or an article, you'd not want to see that book or article referred to or reprinted in, say, the New York Times, but attributed to another author. This is the kind of law any ten year old can understand.

There is, however, another kind of law that is considerably more difficult to understand: the kind of law that makes it a criminal offense to sing "Happy Birthday" to your ten year old on their birthday because somebody got a copyright on the song. Another example is one that keeps the supply of needed medicines in short supply, and therefore selling at a premium price, because the pharmaceutical corporations choose to make more money rather than to save more lives.

And there has been another kind of quantum growth in the power and prestige of the very concept of ownership. Here is how it happened: A very long time ago, everything was just out there. What you owned was what you had on your person or under your immediate physical control. After the birth of civilization, you could own a piece of land because you had a piece of paper that said it was yours. At this point only a few things were really owned by anybody -- God or your local king (sometimes the same bloke) owned everything except a few things that had been specifically deeded to individuals. Nobody owned the River Nile, for example.

Then sometime in the 19th century, somebody had the crazy idea of owning everything; that everything can and should be bought and sold. You could buy a lake. You could even own just that part of something you wanted to own, like owning the coal or oil under a farmer's field. More and more land that used to belong to everybody (because it hadn't officially belonged to anybody) passed into private ownership. Less and less belonged to the common folk. Even the public air waves were auctioned off to the highest bidders.In a few cases, such as the National Parks, land was removed from private ownership and held in trust for all. But these were big exceptions. It was far more common for common lands to be appropriated than for them to be protected.

Today you find that even public places like sports arenas are named as if they were owned by some company: Safeco Field, ARCO Arena, HP Pavilion, etc. These firms bought the right to name a public building, paid for with public money. Used to be that you named a ballpark in honor of some old player everybody liked and remembered fondly. I's not the same when it is a paid advertisement for some publicity-hungry corporation.

Somewhere in all of this craze for ownership, God fell out of the equation. It used to be that we were temporarily granted leave to live here by the real owner, that big guy upstairs. We were supposed to use it for the benefit of all mankind, or all creation, according to some. It wasn't ours to use up. The Earth belonged to us in about the same sense as a puppy belongs to your ten year old child. God "gave" it to mankind in order to teach us responsibility and to give us an opportunity to earn self-respect. And it doesn't matter which church you ask, be it Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist -- they all say more or less the same thing on this subject. Of course, there are apocalyptic churches, whose teaching is that the sooner we ruin this planet, the sooner Jesus will come back. Of course, if you believe this, then you're beyond reason or argument. Personally, if I'd just ruined my planet and God showed up, I can't help think that he'd be mad at me. This isn't the outcome I'd shoot for.

It is a great pity that we have gotten better and better at denying that we live in a world where we're stewards of a living planet, in favor of a world where everything and everyone is under threat of belonging to the highest bidder.

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