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36.1 The General Nature of Property Rights

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the elastic and evolving boundaries of what the law recognizes as property that can be bought or sold on the market.
  2. Distinguish real property from personal property.

Definition of Property

Property, which seems like a commonsense concept, is difficult to define in an intelligible way; philosophers have been striving to define it for the past 2,500 years. To say that “property is what we own” is to beg the question—that is, to substitute a synonym for the word we are trying to define. Blackstone’s famous definition is somewhat wordy: “The right of property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. It consists in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all a person’s acquisitions, without any control or diminution save only by the laws of the land.” A more concise definition, but perhaps too broad, comes from the Restatement of the Law of Property, which defines property as the “legal relationship between persons with respect to a thing.”

The Restatement’s definition makes an important point: property is a legal relationship, the power of one person to use objects in ways that affect others, to exclude others from the property, and to acquire and transfer property. Still, this definition does not contain a specific list of those nonhuman “objects” that could be in such a relationship. We all know that we can own personal objects like iPods and DVDs, and even more complex objects like homes and minerals under the ground. Property also embraces objects whose worth is representative or symbolic: ownership of stock in a corporation is valued not for the piece of paper called a stock certificate but for dividends, the power to vote for directors, and the right to sell the stock on the open market. Wholly intangible things or objects like copyrights and patents and bank accounts are capable of being owned as property. But the list of things that can be property is not fixed, for our concept of property continues to evolve. Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and structured investment vehicles (SIVs), prime players in the subprime mortgage crisis, were not on anyone’s list of possible property even fifteen years ago.

The Economist’s View

Property is not just a legal concept, of course, and different disciplines express different philosophies about the purpose of property and the nature of property rights. To the jurist, property rights should be protected because it is just to do so. To an economist, the legal protection of property rights functions to create incentives to use resources efficiently. For a truly efficient system of property rights, some economists would require universality (everything is owned), exclusivity (the owners of each thing may exclude all others from using it), and transferability (owners may exchange their property). Together, these aspects of property would lead, under an appropriate economic model, to efficient production and distribution of goods. But the law of property does not entirely conform to the economic conception of the ownership of productive property by private parties; there remain many kinds of property that are not privately owned and some parts of the earth that are considered part of “the commons.” For example, large areas of the earth’s oceans are not “owned” by any one person or nation-state, and certain land areas (e.g., Yellowstone National Park) are not in private hands.

Classification of Property

Property can be classified in various ways, including tangible versus intangible, private versus public, and personal versus real. Tangible propertyThat which physically exists, like a building, a popsicle stand, a hair dryer, or a steamroller. is that which physically exists, like a building, a popsicle stand, a hair dryer, or a steamroller. Intangible propertySomething without physical reality that entitles the owner to certain benefits; stocks, bonds, and intellectual property would be common examples. is something without physical reality that entitles the owner to certain benefits; stocks, bonds, and intellectual property would be common examples. Public propertyThat which is owned by any branch of government; private property is that which is owned by anyone else, including a corporation. is that which is owned by any branch of government; private propertyAll property, real or personal, that is not publicly owned or part of “the commons.” is that which is owned by anyone else, including a corporation.

Perhaps the most important distinction is between real and personal property. Essentially, real propertyLand and all structures and fixtures that have legally become part of the land. is immovable; personal propertyAny property that is not real property. is movable. At common law, personal property has been referred to as “chattels.” When chattels become affixed to real property in a certain manner, they are called fixtures and are treated as real property. (For example, a bathroom cabinet purchased at Home Depot and screwed into the bathroom wall may be converted to part of the real property when it is affixed.) Fixtures are discussed in Section 36.3 "Fixtures" of this chapter.

Importance of the Distinction between Real and Personal Property

In our legal system, the distinction between real and personal property is significant in several ways. For example, the sale of personal property, but not real property, is governed by Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Real estate transactions, by contrast, are governed by the general law of contracts. Suppose goods are exchanged for realty. Section 2-304 of the UCC says that the transfer of the goods and the seller’s obligations with reference to them are subject to Article 2, but not the transfer of the interests in realty nor the transferor’s obligations in connection with them.

The form of transfer depends on whether the property is real or personal. Real property is normally transferred by a deed, which must meet formal requirements dictated by state law. By contrast, transfer of personal property often can take place without any documents at all.

Another difference can be found in the law that governs the transfer of property on death. A person’s heirs depend on the law of the state for distribution of his property if he dies intestate—that is, without a will. Who the heirs are and what their share of the property will be may depend on whether the property is real or personal. For example, widows may be entitled to a different percentage of real property than personal property when their husbands die intestate.

Tax laws also differ in their approach to real and personal property. In particular, the rules of valuation, depreciation, and enforcement depend on the character of the property. Thus real property depreciates more slowly than personal property, and real property owners generally have a longer time than personal property owners to make good unpaid taxes before the state seizes the property.

Key Takeaway

Property is difficult to define conclusively, and there are many different classifications of property. There can be public property as well as private property, tangible property as well as intangible property, and, most importantly, real property as well as personal property. These are important distinctions, with many legal consequences.


  1. Kristen buys a parcel of land on Marion Street, a new and publicly maintained roadway. Her town’s ordinances say that each property owner on a public street must also provide a sidewalk within ten feet of the curb. A year after buying the parcel, Kristen commissions a house to be built on the land, and the contractor begins by building a sidewalk in accordance with the town’s ordinance. Is the sidewalk public property or private property? If it snows, and if Kristen fails to remove the snow and it melts and ices over and a pedestrian slips and falls, who is responsible for the pedestrian’s injuries?
  2. When can private property become public property? Does public property ever become private property?