Tyrant Commons King
In South Dakota in 1990 some fossils were found in an Indian reservation, those fossil were later determined to be the most complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex, read article here.
Researchers bought the right from the owner to dig the bones up and take them away. But wait, it was an Indian reservation which meant it was still federal land, and the Cheyenne Sioux Tribe which was on the reservation did not see their cut also. So lawsuits erupted over who owned and had the right to sale, the fossil was seized and the courts are the ones to decide who get the bones. In the end ownership was granted back to the land owner, after they said they had never agreed to the sale of the fossils for just $5,000. So in the end the land owner got the fossil back, everyone at one point claimed ownership, and the fossil sold at Sotheby’s for $7.6 million dollars.
When the fossil sold its title was "Property of the United States of America in Trust for Maurice Williams of Faith, South Dakota.''
As the article stated there really isn’t any law regarding fossils on public land, only the BLM regulates them, and that is a mess all in itself. The big question here if the federal government owns it and its considered a public good how can anyone enjoy it if it is into he ground? It must be removed in order to be used for education, learning, and just overall public use. But for public use it needs to be transferred to a private institute, transferring public to private causes all sorts of political problems. Could you imagine the public outrage if Disney was going to run Yellowstone.
Fossils are a public good that are removable and excludable, and can be privatized without any payment to the owner (Federal Government) in many cases. (Don’t worry it doesn’t make sense to anyone)
My solution to this is allowing only accredited programs to unearth vertebrate fossils, and allow these accredited universities to sell non scientifically significant fossils to the public. The federal government would have to compensate to some point, I have no clue as to the best course of that action yet, perhaps a percentage of sale and a base extraction fee.
Until true property rights are established on who actually owns the rights to the fossils a solution is doubtful.