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property, rights to the enjoyment of things of economic value, whether the enjoyment is exclusive or shared, present or prospective. The rightful possession of such rights is called ownership. Ownership necessarily is supported by correlative rights to exclude others from enjoyment. By extension of usage, the things in which one has property rights are called one's property; thus the person who holds title to a house, even though there is a mortgage outstanding, calls it his or her “property.”

Nature of Modern Property

Modern Anglo-American property law provides at least potentially for the ownership of nearly all things that have or may have value. The terminology and much of the content of modern property law stem from its origins in feudalism. The fundamental division is into realty (or real estate or real property) and personalty (or personal property). (For rules affecting marital property, see husband and wife; for certain special types of property, see copyright and patent.)


Realty is chiefly land and improvements built thereon. Sometimes it is comprehensively, but loosely, described as lands, tenements (holdings by another's authority), and hereditaments (that which is capable of being inherited). Formerly its chief characteristics in a legal sense were that it went by descent to the heir of the owner (who had no control over its disposition) and that ownership might be recovered from any other party by a lawsuit (a so-called real action). Also possessing such characteristics, and hence classified as real property, were titles of honor, heirlooms, and advowsons, i.e., rights to sell ecclesiastical benefices. The manner in which realty is owned is called an estate; specifically, ownership is a fee of some sort, for example, an estate in fee simple (see tenure).


Personal property consists chiefly of movables, that is, portable objects. Typically (but by no means invariably) the owner can by will, gift, or sale determine its distribution (note the contrast with the term descent), and if it has been wrongly taken, a lawsuit (a so-called personal action) will recover damages but will not restore the object. Certain types of interests in land are also classified as personalty; examples are leases for a period of years, mortgages, and liens.

Limits on Ownership

The need for unobstructed intercourse between nations prohibits the assertion of ownership of the high seas, and special rules apply to territorial waters (see waters, territorial) and to domestic navigable water. Air space beyond that which can be used by airplanes is often considered not subject to ownership. In a sense, all land presently or ultimately belongs to the state, for whatever is not actually owned by the public authority may be transferred to it by escheat (when there is no heir to the owner) or in condemnation proceedings under the power of eminent domain. In fact, much or most land in capitalist societies is in private hands, although public lands may be extensive and ownership of subsoil mineral wealth or of buried objects (see treasure-trove) may in some instances be public. (See also public ownership.)

Development of Property Law

Protection and content are given to the ownership of property by custom or law. The type of property law in a society may be taken as an index of its social and economic system. For example, a primitive pastoral tribe that must be closely united to resist its enemies may hold pasture lands in common or rotate ownership, thereby avoiding disruptive quarrels. By contrast, in societies that enjoy an economic surplus and relative security, the institution of private property may be highly developed, with marked division of ownership and a competitive struggle for control. On the other hand, private property may be all but eliminated in certain societies, as in those envisioned by Karl Marx.

In Europe, the distinction between realty and personalty served the purposes of early feudal society. The ownership and disposition of land, the basis of most wealth and the keystone of the social structure, were controlled to protect society, while the ownership of personalty, being of minor importance, was almost unfettered.

As the economic system was altered during the late Middle Ages, however, personalty lost its subordinate position and grew to be the economic mainstay of the rising middle class of merchants and manufacturers. Personalty could be bought and sold in relative freedom without the hindrances that beset the disposal of land. By taking advantage of its economic freedom, the middle class was able to replace the landed aristocracy as society's dominant class. Concurrently, it sought to relieve real property of its medieval fetters in order to use it, along with personalty, as revenue-producing capital.

Gradually the law of realty tended in all important respects to be assimilated to that of personalty. In time land could be sold or distributed by will with almost perfect freedom; in effect it joined the list of other commodities. Differences of detail in the law of realty and personalty persist, especially in the transfer of realty, however, which involves great formality.

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A plot or parcel of land, including buildings or other improvements. Also called real property.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


the rights of possession or ownership recognized within a society. Such possessions may be individually or collectively owned (including corporate as well as communal or state ownership), and include rights to LAND and housing, MEANS OF PRODUCTION or CAPITAL, and sometimes other human beings (see SLAVERY). Wide variations exist in the rights recognized within different societies, and these differences are often regarded as fundamental in determining overall differences between societies (see MODES OF PRODUCTION). In their widest sense, rights of property include rights to alienate (to sell, will, etc.), but often may be limited to rights of control and rights to benefit from use. Historically – e.g. in many simple societies and preindustrial agrarian societies -‘absolute rights’ of private property have been comparatively rare. Conceptions of’absolute rights’ of private property existed for a time in ANCIENT SOCIETY, but achieve a decisive importance only in CAPITALIST SOCIETIES -even then restrictions have usually remained.

Justifications of forms of property are an important part of the ideological legitimation which occurs in most societies, not least justifications of private property notwithstanding that one of the justifications for private property has been the argument that it is a ‘natural’ form (see LOCKE, SMITH, CLASSICAL ECONOMISTS). Among important justifications for it have been the idea, especially influential in the period preceding modern capitalism, that individuals have a right to the fruits of their own labour (see also LABOUR THEORY OF VALUE). Arguments for unlimited rights to private property have been countered by an emphasis on the 'social’ character of all production, the concept of social ‘needs’, and conceptions of social JUSTICE and ideals of EQUALITY (see also SOCIALISM, COMMUNISM). On the other hand the recognition of individual property rights has been emphasized as a significant source of limitations on STATE power, the development of CIVIL SOCIETY, and the appearance of modern CITIZEN RIGHTS (see also NEW RIGHT).

Sociological assessment of differences in, and consequences of differences between, societies in property rights is usually considered by sociologists to require more than regard merely to legal categories of property. An assessment of effective ownership and control, and the inequalities in wealth and income, life-chances, etc. related to these, is also essential. See also CONCENTRATION OF OWNERSHIP, PUBLIC OWNERSHIP.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in law a concept used to define (1) the aggregate of belongings and material values possessed by a person (this is the most common interpretation of the term “property” as found in Soviet legislation); (2) the aggregate of belongings and of property rights to receive property from other persons; and (3) the aggregate of belongings, property rights, and obligations that characterize the financial standing of their possessor. When property is considered in the first two senses, Soviet law, in establishing rules about the responsibility of socialist organizations in terms of their obligations, defines the extent of this responsibility within the limits of the property that belongs to them (allotted to them) and upon which execution can be levied.



a philosophical category expressing the aspect that differentiates an object from or associates it with other objects and that is revealed in the relationship of an object to other objects.

All properties are relative: that is, they do not exist aside from their relationships to other properties and things. Properties are inherent in things and have objective existence, independent of human consciousness. Objective idealism characteristically separates the property from the thing. In other words, a property is understood as something general, existing independently of individual objects and belonging to the sphere of consciousness. Subjective idealism identifies properties with sensations, thereby denying the objective character of properties. V. I. Lenin demonstrated that the identification of the properties of things with sensations contradicts the basic facts of the modern natural sciences and inevitably leads to solipsism (Materializm i empiriokrititsizm [Materialism and Empiriocriticism], Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18).

To a large extent, the branches of learning are differentiated according to differences between the types of properties they study. Depending on how they change, properties may be divided into those that lack intensity and therefore cannot change in that respect (for example, economic or historical properties) and those that are of variable intensity (for example, weight, temperature, or velocity). The humanities are concerned chiefly with properties of the first type. Mathematics and the natural sciences, including physics, chemistry, and astronomy, study primarily properties of the second type. In modern science, however, there is a growing tendency toward overcoming this distinction, as is evident in the development of affine geometry and topology and the penetration of statistical and mathematical methods into the humanities.


Uemov, A. I. Veshchi, svoistva i otnosheniia. Moscow, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Any asset, real or personal.
2. An ownership interest.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. Law the right to possess, use, and dispose of anything
2. a quality, attribute, or distinctive feature of anything, esp a characteristic attribute such as the density or strength of a material
3. any movable object used on the set of a stage play or film
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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