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Within the law, property is a general legal category for rights of ownership in land, money, tangible objects, intangible objects, etc. An individual or a group has control of a certain scarce resource. Within the conceptual framework provided by law this control is assured by the power of the law, or by power exercised under the law, and not by any separate power. However, philosophically at least, it is possible to think of property concepts outside a legal framework - though, as in the Middle Ages, a legal framework for property might well emerge.

Property rights are usually thought of in terms of a bundle of rights, so they can be dealt with as a thing. Traditionally, they are: (1) control over use, (2) right to benefits of property (e.g. mining royalties, farm royalties, etc.), and to (3) transfer or sell. Sometimes a fourth is listed, the right to exclude others, e.g. non-owners. Supporters of capitalism believe that property rights are important as they encourage the property holders to develop the property and generate wealth. Conversely, supporters of socialism and communism tend to be more suspicious of property rights as they believe that these rights are used by the ruling elites to rob the masses of wealth that is rightfully theirs. Supporters of libertarian socialism wish to abolish property rights, so that all property is shared.

It is commonly but incorrectly believed that some cultures, for example native Americans had no concept of property. This mistaken belief comes from the fact that some commodities which are considered economically important in one society are not valuable in others. Thus ownership of land is important for agricultural societies but not in hunter-gatherer societies. However, in practically all societies, one can find the concept of property applied to some object whose ownership is economically valuable. For example, African hunter-gatherer societies do not have ownership of land, but ownership of water holes is important.

Not every person, or entity, with an interest in a given piece of property may be able to exercise all of those rights. For example, as a lessee of a particular piece of property, you may not sell the property, which is one of the rights in the bundle reserved for the owner. Similarly, while you are a lessee the owner cannot use his or her right to exclude to keep you from the property. (Or, if he or she does you may perhaps be entitled to stop paying rent or perhaps sue to regain access.)

Further, property may be held in a number of forms, e.g. joint ownership, community property, sole ownership, lease, etc. These different types of ownership may complicate an owner's ability to exercise his or her rights unilaterally. For example if two people own a single piece of land as joint tenants, then depending on the law in the jurisdiction, each may have limited recourse for the actions of the other. For example, one of the owners might sell his or her interest in the property to a stranger that the other owner does not particularly like.

Types of Property

Most legal systems distinguish between different types of property, especially between land and all other forms of property. They also often distinguish between tangible and intangible property as well.

In common law, property is divided into:

  1. real property - interests in land
  2. personal property - interests in anything other than land

Personal property in turn is divided into tangible property (such as cars, clothing, animals) and intangible or abstract property (stocks, bonds, bank deposits, derivatives, options, futures, patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc.), which includes intellectual property (though some disagree with the use of the term intellectual property).

What can be property?

Not everything can be property; only those things which others can economically be excluded from can be considered property. Thus the air and the water in the sea belong to no one; though once stored in bottles or tanks, they can be considered property.

Traditionally many things existed that did not legally have an owner, such as commons (land belonging to nobody in particular, but over which commoners had rights). But over centuries and millennia law in all societies has tended to develop towards reducing the number of things not having clear owners. This enables better protection of scarce resources, due to the tragedy of the commons. But there are many things today which still do not have owners: ideas, seawater, the seafloor (though due to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, some of it can now be considered in some ways property), celestial bodies, land in Antarctica.

The human body is also often not considered something capable of being legally property of anyone other than the person who resides in that body.

In many ancient legal systems (e.g. early Roman law), religious sites (e.g. temples) were considered property of the God or Gods they were devoted to. However, religious pluralism makes it more convenient to have religious sites owned by the religious body that runs them.


It is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all... It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common is the property for the moment of him who occupies it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. -- Thomas Jefferson

See also:

In computing, properties are pieces of information attributed into certain items.

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