PRN: Defining Ownership

Physician's Money Digest, June15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 11

Everyone instinctively knows what itmeans to own property, be it anobject or an idea, right? We bought it,created it, grew it, found it, were givenit, or possibly took it. It's ours, to foreverdo what we want with, right? Well,maybe. Bear with me here while webegin to explore how there is more tothe concept of ownership than we tendto assume.

Our Concept

Broadly speaking, the legal concept ofownership in this country is that the governmentwill defend your claim to controlof use, location, or disposition of anobject, place, or idea against the claimsof others. At heart, that's what ownershipboils down to: the societal organizationof individual claims of a finite numberof objects and ideas. That's whatmuch of the frenzied legal activity weread about and pay for is focused on.Thankfully, it is but a tiny percentage ofthe background noise as we go aboutour daily affairs. We tacitly understandand agree how our system works.

To give a simple example or two, Idon't have to worry about taking anitem I have purchased out of a storebecause I confidently carry a receiptwhich is prima facie evidence that myclaim to possession and control of thatitem is current. I also don't usuallyworry about someone else summarilymoving into my home if I have not otherwisearranged to do so. My bill of saleand deed are the stone cold proof ofmy temporary ownership, and everyoneunderstands this.

Our Timeframe

I say temporary because our lives aretemporary, and therefore so is ourownership of anything. We have somesay about the disposition of things atour deaths as in life, but with time,even the most structured wills andtrusts fade in their ability to cope withunforeseen changes in conditions andthe law. So our finite lives mean thatpossession is a concept wedded to time.

In the case of the creation, construction,invention, or growth of thingswithin our control, time is also the key.We have evidence that ours was thefirst contact with the new entity,object, or idea, so under our laws, weare defined as having the superiorclaim to it until we agree otherwise.

Our Limits

But there are inherent physical—aswell as legal and time-based—limits tothese claims. You could claim ownershipof the sun, but no one yet has figuredout a way to occupy it or controlits use. You could say the same for theInternet. But as science and technologyadvance, old conundrums will be solvedjust as new ones will be created. And,of course, our legal system will alwayslag developments as we struggle toachieve consensus on how to makeorder where there is none.

We've just scratched the surface, butmaybe ownership isn't quite the easyconcept we've assumed since we firstgrabbed that pail in the sandbox yearsago. "Mine" isn't what we think it is.Yes, we learned about sharing, borrowing,buying, leasing, and so on as wegrew. Mine isn't always mine. We haveto understand these things. Even so, Istill think escrow is too complicated andtitle companies charge too much whenyou buy or sell a house.

Jeff Brown, MD, CPE, a partneron the Stanford UniversityGraduate School of BusinessAlumni Consulting Team, is apracticing primary care physician.He welcomes questions andcomments at