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.
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.)
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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