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Property, any object or right that can be owned. Ownership involves, first and foremost, possession; in simple societies to possess something is to own it. Beyond possession, ownership in modern societies implies the right to use, prevent others from using, and dispose of property, and it implies the protection of such rights by the government.

Property is usually obtained by purchase, inheritance, or gift. Ownership may be public or private. Public ownership is by the government. Private ownership is an individual, a group of individuals, a corporation, or some other form of organization.


The two kinds of property are real and personal. Real property, according to English legal tradition, is the land and anything firmly attached to it, such as buildings and the permanent fixtures of those buildings, and the minerals beneath the surface of the land. Personal property is anything that can be owned other than real property. Personal property can be divided into the tangible and intangible property. Tangible property exists physically; an example is a book. The intangible personal property has no physical existence but nevertheless can be legally owned; an example is patent rights. Certain items, such as the atmosphere and the high seas, are viewed as neither real nor personal property.


The concept of property originated in ancient times. Societies apparently held most property rights—such as the right to hunt or fish in a given area—in common. Although some private ownership of personal property, such as weapons and cooking utensils, existed, real property seems to have been publicly owned. The land was not privately owned until the end of the Middle Ages. Under feudalism, land could be held, not owned, and such holdings involved numerous obligations. In the modern sense of ownership, only the monarch and the Church owned land. (In 1999 Scotland’s newly established executive announced proposals to end the ‘archaic feudal system of the past’ and give communities both the right to buy the land on which they live and new rights of access.)

The rise of a mercantile class in late feudal times gradually affected the relative importance of real and personal property. The personal property had historically been of only minor importance in comparison to the land itself. Thus, little regulation of the ownership, transfer, and inheritance of personal property existed. The rising middle class could amass wealth and transmit it at will, with comparative ease. With the Industrial Revolution, the consequent shift away from agriculture, and the establishment of revenue-producing stocks and bonds, the personal property became as important as real property. Land then became a commodity that could be bought and sold like anything else.


The concept of private property has been challenged by political philosophies such as communism and socialism. According to Communist doctrine, for example, ownership of real property and most personal property should be public; that is, the state should own the means of industrial production, as well as all wealth-generating personal property. Actual Communist societies have, in fact, retained some private property, just as capitalist governments own some property publicly. Socialist societies do not generally hold that all property must be owned by the state; much of it is privately held.

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