What is property? That seems like a question with an obvious answer. It’s stuff you own, right?
Well, it’s really not that simple. Anyone with even the vaguest understanding of real estate or the financial markets can attest to the thorny nature of property these days. And what does property mean when information is increasingly intangible, living in the digital realm, and pinging around the globe? The human body itself has become a site for property debates, as the genetics and biotech industries argue for owning genes, tissue samples, and even the very processes that occur in our cells.
It might seem that the notion of property is on uncharted ground — that we’re attaching new and ever more slippery meanings to an age-old concept. Not so fast. In his new book, “American Property,” out from Harvard University Press this month, UCLA law professor Stuart Banner takes a hard look at the ways in which our nation’s idea of property has evolved over time. The nature of property, he argues, has been shifting for centuries, as society and technology change. Some types of property have vanished, like commons laws that stretch back to the first North American Colonies, while new ones have emerged, like ownership of the airwaves.
Banner is careful to point out that, through all those shifts, the real constant hasn’t been what property is or how you can prove ownership, but what our property does for us. Our modern social definition of property, Banner says, took shape around the turn of the 20th century as a “bundle of rights.” It has since evolved into a “set of relationships” among people, businesses, the state, and the land....MORE