Original Property Rights - dummies

By Alan R. Romero

In the property law arena, anything that’s owned must have a first owner. Here are some of the ways that a thing first becomes owned as property:

  • Sovereign acquisition: In the U.S. legal system, all land was originally owned by a government. Federal, state, and foreign governments originated title to lands in the U.S. by asserting sovereign claims based upon discovery and conquest.

  • Adverse possession: If a person possesses property as if she owned it openly and continuously for a long period of time, she acquires title to the property. This is called adverse possession. Even though someone else formerly owned the property, the theory of adverse possession is that the adverse possessor acquires a new title instead of getting title from the former owner.

  • Creation: People can create new personal property. Much personal property is originally owned by the person who creates it. Even then, she probably has to acquire raw materials from someone else. But if she gets the raw materials, she can create a new thing, like a hat, and she’s its first owner. Similarly, a person can create intangible property like an idea and become its first owner.

  • Capture: Some things exist in nature but aren’t privately owned until captured. For example, wild animals aren’t owned until someone captures them. Similarly, underground water, oil, and gas may not be owned until someone lawfully draws them out from underground.

  • Taking possession: Even when someone else already owned personal property, a person can acquire original ownership rights by taking possession. If the former owner abandons the property, for example, whoever finds and possesses it first becomes its owner, without acquiring ownership from the former owner.

    Even if the former owner doesn’t abandon the thing, a finder or the owner of the property where the thing was mislaid may acquire ownership rights against the rest of the world — and maybe even against the former owner.