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American Property

American Property

A History of How, Why, and What We Own

Stuart Banner

ISBN 9780674058057

Publication date: 03/01/2011

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.


  • 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.

    —Robert Ellickson, Yale Law School


  • 2011, Joint winner of the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History or Biography


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

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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