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13 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 775 (1990)
What Is Property

handle is hein.journals/hjlpp13 and id is 791 raw text is: WHAT IS PROPERTY?*

As this Article is intended to provide a broad context for the
debate on intellectual property rights, its analysis will be lim-
ited to those aspects of property that will be useful in framing
the issue for further debate. Indeed, the definition of property
is simultaneously simple and complex. It is simple because we
can distinguish a generally accepted common-sense notion of
property; that is, something that belongs to somebody in a le-
gitimate way, something that is proper to somebody. It is
complex because this common-sense notion is difficult to apply
to particular issues, including the types of objects that can be
owned, the legitimate methods for property-acquisition, and
the importance of the institution of property for wealth ac-
cumulation and wealth distribution. When one gets into ques-
tions of that sort, the ensuing Pandora's box of crucial ethical,
legal, political, and economic issues may prove to be over-
The first part of this Article will be devoted to the legal no-
tion of property as it was developed in the continental legal
tradition. Property as a generic notion, and intellectual prop-
ety as a particular species of it, are in the first place notions
developed by legal science. In this way, these definitions and
the legal theories related to them determine the agenda of
pblitical, economic, historical, and sociological research about
the accumulation and distribution of wealth and power in
Because of particular historic circumstances,' continental
legal science puts a much stronger emphasis on definitions and
general principles than its Anglo-American counterpart. Conti-
riental jurists at one time identified this conceptual level of
* This Artide results from the adaptation of a discussion paper that was presented
at the Liberty Fund Colloquium on Intellectual Property Rights on August 24-27,
1989, in Aix-en-Provence, France. The author would like to express his gratitude to the
organizers of the colloquium and to the participants, whose remarks allowed the author
to improve the quality of this Article considerably. Special thanks also to Mr. Tom
Palmer, who suggested numerous corrections regarding use of language. Any
remaining errors are entirely the responsibility of the author.
** Professor, University of Ghent Law School, and Lecturer at the Institute for Hu-
mane Studies. B.A., 1971, M.A., 1971, Ph.D., 1981, University of Ghent.
1. See infra note 23.

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