Ownership of property may be private, collective, or common, and the
property may be of objects, land or real estate, or intellectual
property. Determining ownership in law involves determining who has
certain rights and duties over the property. These rights and duties,
sometimes called a "bundle of rights", can be separated and held by
The process and mechanics of ownership are fairly complex: one can
gain, transfer, and lose ownership of property in a number of ways. To
acquire property one can purchase it with money, trade it for other
property, win it in a bet, receive it as a gift, inherit it, find it,
receive it as damages, earn it by doing work or performing services,
make it, or homestead it. One can transfer or lose ownership of
property by selling it for money, exchanging it for other property,
giving it as a gift, misplacing it, or having it stripped from one's
ownership through legal means such as eviction, foreclosure, seizure,
Ownership is self-propagating in that the owner of any
property will also own the economic benefits of that property.
2 Types of owners
2.1 In person
2.2 Structured ownership entities
2.2.1 Liability for the group or for others in the group
2.2.2 Sharing gains
2.2.3 Sharing use
3 Types of property
3.1 Personal property
3.2 Land ownership
3.3 Corporations and legal entities
3.4 Intellectual property
3.5 Chattel slavery
4 Critical views
4.1 Modern Western views
5 See also
Over the millennia and across cultures, notions regarding what
constitutes "property" and how it is treated culturally have varied
Ownership is the basis for many other concepts that form the
foundations of ancient and modern societies such as money, trade,
debt, bankruptcy, the criminality of theft, and private vs. public
Ownership is the key building block in the development of
the capitalist socio-economic system. Adam Smith
stated that one of the sacred laws of justice was to guard a person's
property and possessions.
Types of owners
Individuals may own property directly. In some societies only adult
men may own property; in other societies (such as the
Haudenosaunee), property is matrilinear and passed on from mother to
the offspring. In most societies both men and women
can own property with no restrictions and limitations at all.[citation
Structured ownership entities
Throughout history,[not specific enough to verify] nations (or
governments) and religious organizations have owned property.[citation
needed] These entities exist primarily for other purposes than to own
or operate property; hence, they may have no clear rules regarding the
disposition of their property.
To own and operate property, structures (often known today as legal
entities) have been created in many societies throughout history. The
differences in how they deal with members' rights is a key factor in
determining their type. Each type has advantages and disadvantages
derived from their means of recognizing or disregarding (rewarding or
not) contributions of financial capital or personal effort.
Cooperatives, corporations, trusts, partnerships, and condominium
associations are only some of the many varied types of structured
ownership; each type has many subtypes.
Legal advantages or
restrictions on various types of structured ownership have existed in
many societies past and present. To govern how assets are to be used,
shared, or treated, rules and regulations may be legally imposed or
internally adopted or decreed.
Liability for the group or for others in the group
Ownership by definition does not necessarily imply a responsibility to
others for actions regarding the property. A "legal shield" is said to
exist if the entity's legal liabilities do not get redistributed among
the entity's owners or members. An application of this, to limit
ownership risks, is to form a new entity to purchase, own and operate
each property. Since the entity is separate and distinct from others,
if a problem occurs which leads to a massive liability, the individual
is protected from losing more than the value of that one property.
Many other properties are protected, when owned by other distinct
In the loosest sense of group ownership, a lack of legal framework,
rules and regulations may mean that group ownership of property places
every member in a position of responsibility (liability) for the
actions of each other member. A structured group duly constituted as
an entity under law may still not protect members from being
personally liable for each other's actions. Court decisions against
the entity itself may give rise to unlimited personal liability for
each and every member. An example of this situation is a professional
partnership (e.g. law practice) in some jurisdictions. Thus, being a
partner or owner in a group may give little advantage in terms of
share ownership while producing a lot of risk to the partner, owner or
At the end of each financial year, accounting rules determine a
surplus or profit, which may be retained inside the entity or
distributed among owners according to the initial setup intent when
the entity was created. For public corporations, common shareholders
have no right to receive any of the profit.
Entities with a member focus will give financial surplus back to
members according to the volume of financial activity that the
participating member generated for the entity. Examples of this are
producer cooperatives, buyer cooperatives and participating whole life
policyholders in both mutual and share-capital insurance companies.
Entities with share voting rights that depend on financial capital
distribute surplus among shareholders without regard to any other
contribution to the entity. Depending on internal rules and
regulations, certain classes of shares have the right to receive
increases in financial "dividends" while other classes do not. After
many years the increase over time is substantial if the business is
profitable. Examples of this are common shares and preferred shares in
private or publicly listed share capital corporations.
Entities with a focus on providing service in perpetuam do not
distribute financial surplus; they must retain it. It will then serve
as a cushion against losses or as a means to finance growth
activities. Examples of this are not-for-profit entities: they are
allowed to make profits, but are not permitted to give any of it back
to members except by way of discounts in the future on new
Depending on the charter at the foundation of the entity, and
depending on the legal framework under which the entity was created,
the form of ownership is determined once and for all time. To change
it requires significant work in terms of communicating with
stakeholders (member-owners, governments, etc.) and acquiring their
approval. Whatever structural constraints or disadvantages exist at
the creation thus remain an integral part of the entity. Common in for
instance New York City, Hamburg and Berlin in Germany is a form of
real estate ownership known as a cooperative (also co-operative or
co-op, in German Wohnungsgenossenschaft - apartment co-operative, also
"Wohnbaugenossenschaft" or simply "Baugenossenschaft") which relies
heavily on internal rules of operation instead of the legal framework
governing condominium associations. These "co-ops", owning the
building for the mutual benefit of its members, can ultimately perform
most of the functions of a legally constituted condominium, i.e.
restricting use appropriately and containing financial liabilities to
within tolerable levels. To change their structure now that they are
up and operating would require significant effort to achieve
acceptance among members and various levels of government.
The owning entity makes rules governing use of property; each property
may comprise areas that are made available to any and every member of
the group to use. When the group is the entire nation, the same
principle is in effect whether the property is small (e.g. picnic rest
stops along highways) or large such as national parks, highways,
ports, and publicly owned buildings. Smaller examples of shared use
include common areas such as lobbies, entrance hallways and passages
to adjacent buildings.
One disadvantage of communal ownership, known as the Tragedy of the
Commons, occurs where unlimited unrestricted and unregulated access to
a resource (e.g. pasture land) destroys the resource because of
over-exploitation. The benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals
immediately, while the costs of policing or enforcing appropriate use,
and the losses dues to over exploitation, are distributed among many,
and are only visible to these gradually.
In a communist nation the means of production of goods would be owned
communally by all people of that nation; the original thinkers did not
specify rules and regulations.
State ownership - Assets that a state or certain state agency has
Government ownership - Assets belonging to a body of government.
Public property - Assets owned by a government or state that are
available for public use to all their constituents.
Personal ownership - Assets and property belonging to an individual,
also known as individual ownership.
Common ownership - Assets and property that are held in common by all
members of society (or non-ownership).
Communal ownership -
Property held in common by a commune (see
Collective ownership - Assets and property that belong to a collective
body of people who control their use and collect the proceeds of their
Private ownership - A subset of collective property whereby a
collective group of owners (such as shareholders) own productive
property that is used by employees, usually for the purpose of
generating a profit.
Cooperative ownership -
Property that is owned by those who operate
and use it. Also referred to as social ownership.
Types of property
Main article: Personal property
Personal property is a type of property. In the common law systems
personal property may also be called chattels. It is distinguished
from real property, or real estate. In the civil law systems personal
property is often called movable property or movables - any property
that can be moved from one location or another. This term is used to
distinguish property that different from immovable property or
immovables, such as land and buildings. This also means the direct
owner of the item(s) is in full control of them/it until either
stolen, confiscated by law enforcement, or destroyed.
Personal property may be classified in a variety of ways; such as
goods, money, negotiable instruments, securities, and intangible
assets including choses in action.
Main article: Real estate
Real estate or immovable property is a legal term (in some
jurisdictions) that encompasses land along with anything permanently
affixed to the land, such as buildings.
Real estate (immovable
property) is often considered synonymous with real property, in
contrast from personal property (also sometimes called chattel or
personalty). However, for technical purposes, some people prefer to
distinguish real estate, referring to the land and fixtures
themselves, from real property, referring to ownership rights over
real estate. The terms real estate and real property are used
primarily in common law, while civil law jurisdictions refer instead
to immovable property.
In law, the word real means relating to a thing (from
ultimately from rēs, 'matter' or 'thing'), as distinguished from a
person. Thus the law broadly distinguishes between real property (land
and anything affixed to it) and personal property (everything else,
e.g., clothing, furniture, money). The conceptual difference is
between immovable property, which would transfer title along with the
land, and movable property, which a person would retain title to.
Incidentally, the word real in real estate is not derived from the
notion of land having historically been "royal" property. The word
royal—and its Spanish cognate, real—come from the unrelated Latin
word rēgālis 'kingly,' which is a derivative of rēx, meaning
With the development of private property ownership, real estate has
become a major area of business.
Corporations and legal entities
Main article: Private property
An individual or group of individuals can own shares in corporations
and other legal entities, but do not necessarily own the entities
themselves. A legal entity is a legal construct through which the law
allows a group of natural persons to act as if it were an individual
for certain purposes.
Some duly incorporated entities may not be owned by individuals nor by
other entities; they exist without being owned once they are created.
Not being owned, they cannot be bought and sold. Mutual life insurance
companies, credit unions, foundations and cooperatives, not for profit
organizations, and public corporations are examples of this. No person
can purchase the company, as their ownership is not legally available
for sale, neither as shares nor as a single whole.
Main article: Intellectual property
Intellectual property (IP) refers to a legal entitlement which
sometimes attaches to the expressed form of an idea, or to some other
intangible subject matter. This legal entitlement generally enables
its holder to exercise exclusive rights of use in relation to the
subject matter of the IP. The term intellectual property reflects the
idea that this subject matter is the product of the mind or the
intellect, and that IP rights may be protected at law in the same way
as any other form of property.
Intellectual property laws confer a bundle of exclusive rights in
relation to the particular form or manner in which ideas or
information are expressed or manifested, and not in relation to the
ideas or concepts themselves (see idea-expression divide). It is
therefore important to note that the term "intellectual property"
denotes the specific legal rights which authors, inventors and other
IP holders may hold and exercise, and not the intellectual work
Intellectual property laws are designed to protect different forms of
intangible subject matter, although in some cases there is a degree of
Copyright may subsist in creative and artistic works (e.g. books,
movies, music, paintings, photographs and software), giving a
copyright holder the exclusive right to control reproduction or
adaptation of such works for a certain period of time.
A patent may be granted in relation to an invention that is new,
useful and not simply an obvious advancement over what existed when
the application was filed. A patent gives the holder an exclusive
right to commercially exploit the invention for a certain period of
time (typically 20 years from the filing date of a patent
A trademark is a distinctive sign which is used to distinguish the
products or services of one business from those of another business.
An industrial design right protects the form of appearance, style or
design of an industrial object (e.g. spare parts, furniture or
A trade secret (also known as "confidential information") is an item
of confidential information concerning the commercial practices or
proprietary knowledge of a business.
Patents, trademarks and designs fall into a particular subset of
intellectual property known as industrial property.
Like other forms of property, intellectual property (or rather the
exclusive rights which subsist in the IP) can be transferred (with or
without consideration) or licensed to third parties. In some
jurisdictions it may also be possible to use intellectual property as
security for a loan.
The basic public policy rationale for the protection of intellectual
property is that IP laws facilitate and encourage disclosure of
innovation into the public domain for the common good, by granting
authors and inventors exclusive rights to exploit their works and
invention for a limited period.
However, various schools of thought are critical of the very concept
of intellectual property, and some characterise IP as intellectual
protectionism. There is ongoing debate as to whether IP laws truly
operate to confer the stated public benefits, and whether the
protection they are said to provide is appropriate in the context of
innovation derived from such things as traditional knowledge and
folklore, and patents for software and business methods.
Manifestations of this controversy can be seen in the way different
jurisdictions decide whether to grant intellectual property protection
in relation to subject matter of this kind, and the North-South divide
on issues of the role and scope of intellectual property laws.
Main article: Chattel slavery
The living human body is, in most modern societies, considered
something which cannot be the property of anyone but the person whose
body it is. This is in contrast to chattel slavery.
Chattel slavery is
a type of slavery defined as the absolute legal ownership of a person
or persons, including the legal right to buy and sell them. The slaves
do not have the freedom to live life as they choose, but as they are
instructed by their owners, and their rights may be either severely
limited or nonexistent. In most countries, chattel slaves were
considered as movable property.
Slavery is currently illegal in every country around the world,
however, up until the 19th century slavery and ownership of people had
existed in one form or another in nearly every society on
earth. Notwithstanding the illegality according to
codes of law, slavery still exists in various forms today.
The question of ownership reaches back to the ancient philosophers,
Plato and Aristotle, who held different opinions on the subject. Plato
(428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) thought private property created divisive
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) thought private
property enabled people to receive the full benefit of their labor.
Private property can circumvent what is now referred to as the
“tragedy of the commons” problem, where people tend to degrade
common property more than they do private property. Given a
short-sighted owner, however, a private property system can make these
tragedies worse—for example, a private owner of a piece of oil-rich
property, depending on his worldview, might be more interested in
short-term financial gain than incremental use with an eye toward
other's concerns (e.g., those of future generations, the
disenfranchised, etc.). While
Aristotle justified the existence of
private ownership, he left open questions of (1) how to allocate
property between what is private and common and (2) how to allocate
the private property within society.
Modern Western views
In modern Western popular culture some people believe that exclusive
ownership of property underlies much social injustice, and facilitates
tyranny and oppression on an individual and societal scale. Others
consider the striving to achieve greater ownership of wealth as the
driving factor behind human technological advancement and increasing
standards of living.
Right-libertarians not only believe that
ownership is the driving factor behind human technological advancement
and increasing standards of living, but is also necessary for liberty
Ownership society was a political slogan used by United States
George W. Bush
George W. Bush to promote a series of policies aimed to
increase the control of individual citizens over health care and
social security payments and policies. Critics have claimed that
slogan hid an agenda that sought to implement tax cuts and curtail the
government's role in health care and retirement saving.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ownership
Look up ownership or own in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Owned, a slang term for dominance or control
^ Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. A.L. Macfie and D.D. Raphael.
Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1982, II.ii.2.3
Slavery Today". BBC.
^ Politics 1263a8 15 as quoted in Mayhew 1995 p. 566