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Seems like a simple concept: my stuff. You point into your purse, house, or phone screen to indicate your belongings. A story about Justin Bieber not being able to paint his car the colour he chose got me riffing on the concept of ownership. It’s complicated, lots of laws and cultural influences modify what it means when you own objects.

When we take ownership of something, generally, it becomes a thing we can do with as we choose. No one questions when we buy a 2 x 4 piece of lumber what we’re going to do with it, what time we use our mediation app, or if we put hot sauces on our bananas provided the lumber/app/banana+hot sauce have been legally acquired. Even if the item acquired has risks, like a chain saw, breast implants or cryptocurrency, the buyers’ rights to use the item and accept the consequences of ownership are respected1.

Certain circumstances limit what a person can do with what they own. 

To begin where this story began, apparently Ferrari has banned Mr. Bieber from owning any more of their cars because he altered the one he had. 

With prestige items, there is prestige to maintain, so the manufacturer may limit the changes that can be made to item2. Or maybe the manufacturer believes part of the prestige is that the owner will leave the car exactly as delivered because it’s perfect as made. Whichever side of pretension you are on, in the reported case, ownership doesn’t include altering the item, apparently by contract between buyer and seller.

Works of art cannot be modified by a buyer, for a different reason. Say the owner of a painting wants to draw moustaches on the people depicted in the work. Ownership rights don’t extend this far. This is because artists have moral rights3, which protect the integrity of their creative work, regardless of who owns the work (unless they sign away their moral rights). 

While on the subject of intellectual property, which moral rights are part of, a subtlety of ownership relates to exactly what is acquired when one buys a book, song recording, painting, NFT or other creative work in which the creator has intellectual property rights. Ownership extends only to the one copy transferred to the buyer. This is a bit intuitively tricky. Making copies of physical things, like a book or designer shoes is clearly not a right of ownership, but sharing your joy of experiencing a song or show seems harmless enough. Until you make a copy and send it to your loved ones, or broadcast it in a public place, which amounts to distributing something your ownership of a copy doesn’t cover. 

In a similar way, much of the software on an electronic devices is licensed to the user, rather than owned, even though the device may belong to the user. While the tech is your thing, making it do what you want may be limited beause the software belongs to someone else. This explains why I never feel I’m completely in control of my electronic devices, but that’s another story.

Of course, ownership of items only includes using them in a lawful way. 

Unlawful use is managed through law enforcement by the police, local bylaw offices and other government agencies. If you speed in the car you own, you get a ticket. If you alter it so emissions are excessive, it may not be relicensed. If you paint it blue, unless you’ve contracted with the seller to not do that, you’re within the law. 

Buying a house, the general assumption is the owner can do what they want on the property, within the laws of the area. This doesn’t stop neighbours from having an opinion, or a conscientious home owner from discussing pros and cons of trees and fences with the people next door. Sometimes, homeowners limit what they do with our homes because of resale value. In effect, looking out for the next owners’ interest. 

Being able to sell something is part of what we expect comes with the right of ownership, except when it require a license to sell, such as pharmaceuticals. With choices, comes responsibility. Owners need to ensure their possessions don’t harm or pose a threat to others, such as training your dog so it doesn’t bite4, or supervision of barbecues and fire pits.

Cultural influences define ownership in different ways. Indigenous peoples in North America do not consider land ownership in the same way as European settlers. Land of Indigenous people is to be shared and cared for by a broad group of people5, rather than allocated in individual lots for a single family use as Europeans do. Chinese culture, with a ‘collective social orientation’6, is said to put less value on individual intellectual property ownership, leading to broader reproduction of items and therefore broader ownership of these items, at the cost of the ownership rights of the original creator.

The term ownership is often used metaphorically, as in ‘I’m taking ownership of this mistake or project’. This generally means taking responsibility for all aspects while having decision-making authority about the management of the incident or program. It’s a good metaphor to understand what ownership means.

Being the manager of anything, whether it’s a fast car, tract of land, or pet goldfish, is a job that requires understanding of what it really means to be the owner, with associated rights and responsibilities.

Ownership may have it’s priveleges but there’s more to it than that.

1 Assuming the seller has fully disclosed information about the risks of the product to the buyer. But that’s another topic, I think.

2 I tried to find Ferrari’s official terms and conditions that state this, but Google isn’t giving them up. Instead there are multiple articles and chat sites that relay the information that the automaker’s terms and conditions of sale include not making modifications to the vehicle.


4 Pets are in a special category as they are not to be treated as possessions. Pets must be properly cared for according to standards set by someone other than the owner. 

5 This skims the surface of the importance of land to Indigenous people. For more details, see, for example and


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