Encyclopedia Article

Property law

print Print
Please select which sections you would like to print:
While every effort has been made to follow citation style rules, there may be some discrepancies. Please refer to the appropriate style manual or other sources if you have any questions.
Select Citation Style
Share to social media
Facebook Twitter
Corrections? Updates? Omissions? Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article (requires login).
Thank you for your feedback

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
External Websites
  • The Canadian Encyclopedia - Property Law
  • Library of Economics and Liberty -The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics - Property Rights
Alternative Title: property rights

Property law, principles, policies, and rules by which disputes over property are to be resolved and by which property transactions may be structured. What distinguishes property law from other kinds of law is that property law deals with the relationships between and among members of a society with respect to “things.” The things may be tangible, such as land or a factory or a diamond ring, or they may be intangible, such as stocks and bonds or a bank account. Property law, then, deals with the allocation, use, and transfer of wealth and the objects of wealth. As such, it reflects the economy of the society in which it is found. Since it deals with the control and transfer of wealth between spouses and across generations, property law also reflects the family structure of the society in which it is found. Finally, because it deals with such fundamental issues as the economy and the structure of the family, property law also reflects the politics of the society in which it is found.

This article outlines the major systems of property law that have existed historically and that exist today. The principal focus is on the two major Western systems of law that have become dominant in the industrialized world: the Anglo-American system, derived from the English common law, and the civil law system, which was developed on the European continent on the basis of Roman law. The article will also compare Anglo-American property law with its counterpart in various civil law (i.e., law based on Roman law rather than English common law) countries, including Germany and modern China. Special attention will be given to the rules of property law in countries that, because of their socialist political system, did not recognize private ownership of property. Russia and Romania will be used as the main examples.

Definition and basic themes

The problem of definition

Property is frequently defined as the rights of a person with respect to a thing. The difficulties with this definition have long plagued legal theorists.

The same problem of definition occurs in non-Western societies as well. In Russia, for example, the word property (sobstvennost) can have various meanings. In some cases it is used as the equivalent of things, belongings, or real estate. It is also used to refer to the right of ownership. In modern-day Russia, the term property is most accurately understood as the economic relations between the owner of a thing and all other persons with respect to that thing.

Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content. Subscribe Now

Property law is best understood as the complex of jural relationships between and between persons with respect to things. It is the sum of rights and duties, privileges and no-rights, powers and liabilities, disabilities and immunities that exist with respect to things. This holds true for both Western and non-Western legal systems. What distinguishes property law from all other jural relationships, then, is that the jural relationships of property law deal with things.

For purposes of this article, all tangible things are included within the realm of property law, even if a specific legal system denies the classification “property” to certain kinds of tangible things. Many, but not all, legal systems that recognize a separate category of property law also include within that category some intangible things, such as stocks and bonds, but not other intangible things, such as claims for compensation for wrongs (i.e., a tort or delict). The definition of property law used here includes only those intangible things that the legal system under discussion classifies as property. For a discussion of property law relating to other forms of intangible assets, see intellectual property law.

This descriptive definition of property law makes it possible to say that there is no known legal system that does not have a law of property. A legal system may not have a category that corresponds to property in Western legal systems, but every known legal system has some set of rules that deal with the relations between persons with respect at least to tangible things.


The descriptive definition of property law adopted for this article is far removed from what the word property means in normal English usage: “an object of legal rights,” or “possessions” or “wealth” collectively, frequently with strong connotations of individual ownership. The English word property derives either directly or through French propriété from Latin proprietas, which means “the peculiar nature or quality of a thing” and (in Roman writings after the time of Caesar Augustus) “ownership.” The word proprietas is derived from proprius, an adjective meaning “peculiar” or “own,” as opposed to communis, “common,” or alienus, “another’s.” Thus, even before it comes to be a legal term, “property” in the West expresses what distinguishes an individual or a thing from a group or from one another.

The Western tendency to agglomerate

If property law in the descriptive sense exists in all legal systems, the extraordinary diversity of the property systems of non-Western societies suggests that any concept of property other than the descriptive one is dependent on the culture in which it is found. Even in the West, as the discussion of the English word property shows, the concept has varied considerably over time.

Nonetheless, one tendency seems to characterize the legal concept of property, in the descriptive sense, in the West: a tendency to agglomerate in a single legal person, preferably the one currently in exclusive right to possess, privilege to use, and power to convey the thing. In the technical language of jural relationships, Western law tends to ascribe the following to the possessor of the thing: (1) the right to possess the thing with a duty in everyone else to stay off, (2) the privilege of using the thing with no right in anyone else to prevent that use (coupled with a right in the possessor to prevent others from using the thing), (3) a power to transfer any or all the possessor’s rights, privileges, powers, and immunities to anyone else (who would in the technical language be described as liable to the exercise of the power), and (4) an immunity from change by anyone of those same rights, privileges, and powers (so that everyone else is disabled from changing them).

Get all the answers from the experts.
Learn More!