What Are Property Rights? - Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Are Property Rights?
  • 0:59 Rights
  • 1:51 History And Examples
  • 3:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anthony Aparicio

Tony taught Business and Aeronautics courses for eight years; he holds a Master's degree in Management and is completing a PhD in Organizational Psychology

The definition of property rights sounds simple; however, there is a lot more to property rights than meets the eye. This lesson will provide definitions, some historical information, and examples to help you better understand this important topic.

What Are Property Rights?

At first glance, the definition of property rights seems very straightforward. We define property rights as a right to specific property, whether intangible or tangible. In many cases, property rights are clear. If you own a car and have a title to that car in your name, then the property rights to drive, sell, lend, lease, or scrap that car belong to you. However, the courts are filled with cases of different people who believe that certain property rights belong to them. If we break down the term into its separate parts of property and rights, then we may see the reason for the debate.

Even though the definition of property rights appears to be simple, all you have to do is ask ten different attorneys the definition of property and you are likely to find there's many, many different types of property! They can include community property, abandoned property, distressed, intangible, marital, mislaid, personal, private, public, and real.


For the purposes of this lesson, we're going to talk mostly about real property, or land, although we'll get to intangible property later on. When considering real property, the owner's rights to use the land may differ based on his or her perception of ownership. Most will agree that land owners have the right to anything that's stationary on the land, such as houses, trees or other plant life, rocks or minerals, and crops. However, others may disagree when it comes to rights regarding things that move, such deer that walk through the property, birds that fly overhead, and water that flows across the land.

When it comes to rights, even the legal definition becomes somewhat unclear. Rights can be something that is 'proper under the law, morality, or ethics.' Each of us has our own definition of morality and ethical behavior, which means that it is common for two or more people to have various opinions but still feel that they are right under the law.

History and Examples

Past history shows that property rights, especially when it comes to land, have been the main source of power and income for individuals, groups, and governments. For example, colonists and Native Americans fought over land rights. Banks can foreclose on houses when proper payments are not made. Finally, governments tax people within their jurisdiction based on the property they own.

Many of our current laws have been adapted from English common law, which is laws and statutes made from judges in England. These volumes of legal codes are constantly being interpreted in judges' rulings today, including interpretations of what is legal, moral, and ethical when it comes to the different types of property.

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