American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own

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Overview

In America, we are eager to claim ownership: our homes, our ideas, our organs, even our own celebrity. But beneath our nation’s proprietary longing looms a troublesome question: what does it mean to own something? More simply: what is property?

The question is at the heart of many contemporary controversies, including disputes over who owns everything from genetic material to indigenous culture to music and film on the Internet. To decide if and when genes or culture or digits are a kind of property that can be possessed, we must grapple with the nature of property itself. How does it originate? What purposes does it serve? Is it a natural right or one created by law?

Accessible and mercifully free of legal jargon, American Property reveals the perpetual challenge of answering these questions, as new forms of property have emerged in response to technological and cultural change, and as ideas about the appropriate scope of government regulation have shifted. This first comprehensive history of property in the United States is a masterly guided tour through a contested human institution that touches all aspects of our lives and desires.

Stuart Banner shows that property exists to serve a broad set of purposes, constantly in flux, that render the idea of property itself inconstant. Despite our ideals of ownership, property has always been a means toward other ends. What property signifies and what property is, we come to see, has consistently changed to match the world we want to acquire.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

What sounds like it might be a staid look at a dry subject turns out, in fact, to be an exciting and captivating journey along a fascinating side road in American history: property and its ownership...[Banner] explores the occasionally labyrinthine legal and political processes that, as America was defining itself as a country, began to define one of its residents' most basic (yet complex) rights.
— David Pitt

Choice

Banner provides an expansive survey on the evolution of property rights and protections in the U.S. Using the background of technological advances and shifting social perspectives, the author highlights the mutable nature of American property.
— A. H. Cooley

The Nation

Ostensibly a history of the ways judges and other legal actors have argued about what constitutes "property," [American Property] offers a generally persuasive and always accessible reconstruction of how particular claimed resources—waterpower at one moment, copyright at another, clean air, the airwaves, access to beaches, the capacity of suburbanites to sustain a homogeneous racial community at others—have become and remain contested in the law. Unlike most historians of property, who usually pick a single critical standpoint or truth about who owns what in America (natural right, inequality, exploitation, beggaring the environment), or who track particular phrases or positions as they have been mobilized throughout American history, Banner builds a portrait of property in the United States by exploring transitory conflicts and settlements...American Property is not just a revelation of the secret knowledge of American property law but a chronicle of how that knowledge was amassed, told through a sequence of exemplary tales and moments.
— Hendrik Hartog

Robert Ellickson
In this masterful survey, Stuart Banner documents the evolution of property rights. Brimming with fresh vignettes and insights, American Property will enlighten and delight both general readers and specialists in these issues.
Sarah Barringer Gordon
American Property deftly explores the many ways that we rely on property to achieve human ends, tailoring the law to suit new places and changing technology.
John Fabian Witt
Stuart Banner's elegantly written tour of American property law leads its reader to a startling conclusion. There is no such thing as a unified singular law of property. There are only laws of property that have shaped where we live, the news we read, the inventions we use, the celebrities we watch, and the music we listen to. Our ideas of property won't ever look quite the same.
Gregory S. Alexander
We have never had a comprehensive synthesis of the history of property and property law in the United States. Now Stuart Banner fills this major gap with an original and insightful work.
Booklist - David Pitt
What sounds like it might be a staid look at a dry subject turns out, in fact, to be an exciting and captivating journey along a fascinating side road in American history: property and its ownership...[Banner] explores the occasionally labyrinthine legal and political processes that, as America was defining itself as a country, began to define one of its residents' most basic (yet complex) rights.
Choice - A. H. Cooley
Banner provides an expansive survey on the evolution of property rights and protections in the U.S. Using the background of technological advances and shifting social perspectives, the author highlights the mutable nature of American property.
The Nation - Hendrik Hartog
Ostensibly a history of the ways judges and other legal actors have argued about what constitutes "property," [American Property] offers a generally persuasive and always accessible reconstruction of how particular claimed resources--waterpower at one moment, copyright at another, clean air, the airwaves, access to beaches, the capacity of suburbanites to sustain a homogeneous racial community at others--have become and remain contested in the law. Unlike most historians of property, who usually pick a single critical standpoint or truth about who owns what in America (natural right, inequality, exploitation, beggaring the environment), or who track particular phrases or positions as they have been mobilized throughout American history, Banner builds a portrait of property in the United States by exploring transitory conflicts and settlements...American Property is not just a revelation of the secret knowledge of American property law but a chronicle of how that knowledge was amassed, told through a sequence of exemplary tales and moments.
Publishers Weekly
In this tightly written book, Banner, a professor of law at UCLA, tackles an admittedly expansive topic, illustrating that our ideas about what property is, how it is regulated, and what it is meant to do are in constant flux and have been historically contested. Partly an examination of law, partly of culture, politics, economics, and even religion, Banner successfully shows how our notions of property and so-called "natural property" in essence sketch the shifting borders of what Americans deem appropriate government regulation. "Our conceptions of property have always been molded to serve our particular purposes," Banner writes, using examples ranging from zoning laws (which were often used to enforce racial and economic boundaries); eminent domain and personal property disputes; as well as new, thorny notions of intellectual property in the digital age (digital copying makes some property rights harder to enforce, he notes, but creates new opportunities as well). Banner even addresses biological breakthroughs (can a company own a genetically engineered hybrid or a cell line?). It's an huge amount of history and analysis that ably proves a simple thesis: "the debates have never been about property in the abstract," Banner writes. "Property has always been a means, rather than an end." 11 b&w illus. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674058057
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 392,073
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Stuart Banner is Norman Abrams Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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