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Essays property rights

To deny, therefore, that there can be any right of property in incorporeal things, is denying that a man can have any right of property in his labor; and, of course, that he can have any right to demand pay for it, when he labors for another. Yet we all know that labor is a subject of property. It also has value. It is the great dependence of the human race for subsistence.

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It is of ten thousand thousand kinds. Each of these kinds, too, has its well understood market price; as much so as any corporeal substance whatever. And each of these various kinds of labor is constantly bought and sold as merchandise. Labor, therefore, being incorporeal, and yet, by universal confession, a subject of property, the principle of the right of property in incorporeal things is established. To deny the right of property in incorporeal things, is equivalent to denying the right of property in the products, that is, in the creations, of human labor: for these products, or creations, are all incorporeal.

Human labor, as has already been said, cannot create corporeal substances. It can only create, and give to corporeal substances, new forms, qualities, adaptations, and values. These new forms, qualities, adaptations, and values are all incorporeal things. For example—The new forms, and new beauties, which a sculptor, by his labor, creates, and imparts to a block of marble, are not corporeal substances.

They are mere qualities, that have been imparted to a corporeal substance. They are qualities, that can neither be weighed nor measured, like corporeal substances.

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Scales will not weigh them, nor yard sticks measure them, as they will weigh and measure corporeal substances. They can be perceived and estimated only by the mind; in the same manner that the mind perceives and estimates an idea. In short, these new forms and new beauties, which Edition: current; Page: [ 33 ] human labor has created, and imparted to the marble, are incorporeal, and not corporeal things.

Yet they have value; are the products of labor; are subjects of property; and are constantly bought and sold in the market. So also it is with all the new forms, qualities, adaptations, and values, which labor creates, and imparts to the materials, of which a house, for example, is composed.

Essays in Conveyancing and Property Law

These new forms, qualities, adaptations, and values, are all incorporeal. They can neither be weighed, nor measured, as corporeal substances. Yet without them, the corporeal substances, out of which the house is constructed, would have failed to become a house. They, therefore, have value. They are also the products of labor; are subjects of property; and are constantly bought and sold in the market. The same principle holds good in regard to all corporeal substances whatsoever, to which labor gives new forms, or qualities, adapted to satisfy the wants, gratify the eye, or promote the happiness of man—whether the substances be articles of food, clothing, utensils for labor, books, pictures, or whatever else may minister to the desires of men.

The new forms and qualities, given to each and all these corporeal substances, to adapt them to use, are themselves incorporeal. Yet they have value; are the products of labor; and are as much subjects of property, as are the substances themselves. And the destruction or injury of these forms and qualities, by any person not the owner, is as clearly a crime, as is the theft or destruction of the substances themselves. In fact, correctly speaking, it is only the incorporeal forms, qualities, and adaptations of corporeal substances, that can be destroyed.

The substances themselves are incapable of destruction. To destroy or injure the incorporeal forms, qualities, and adaptations, that have been given to corporeal substances by labor, destroys or injures the market value of the substances themselves; because it destroys or impairs their utility, for the purposes for which they are desired.

How absurd then to say that incorporeal things are not subjects of property. The examples already given, of labor, the products, or creations of labor, by which is now meant those forms, qualities, adaptations, and values, imparted by labor to corporeal substances, would be sufficient to prove that incorporeal things are subjects of property.

But, saying nothing as yet of ideas, there are still other kinds of incorporeal things, that are subjects of property.

For example. Various other kinds of reputation are also subjects of property. They have value; and they are the products of labor. Yet they are not corporeal substances.

Health is incorporeal. Strength is incorporeal. So also the senses, or faculties, of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and feeling are incorporeal. A person might lose them all without the loss of any corporeal substance. Yet they are all valuable possessions, and subjects of property. To impair or destroy them, through carelessness or design, is an injury to be compensated by damages, or punished as a crime.

Melody is incorporeal. Yet it has value; is the product of labor; is a subject of property; and a common article of merchandise. Beauty is incorporeal. Yet it is a subject of property. It is a property, too, that is very highly prized—whether it be beauty of person, or beauty in those animals or inanimate objects, which are subjects of property. And to impair or destroy such beauty, is acknowledged by all to be a wrong, to be compensated in damages,—or a crime, to be visited with penalties. A ride, and the right or privilege of riding, or of being carried, as, for example, on railroads, in steamboats, and public conveyances of all kinds, are incorporeal things.

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They cannot be seen by the eye, nor touched by the hand. They can only be perceived Edition: current; Page: [ 35 ] by the mind. Yet they have value; are subjects of property; and are constantly bought and sold in the market. The right of going into a hotel, or a place of public amusement, is not a corporeal substance. It nevertheless has value, and is a subject of property, and is constantly bought and sold. Liberty is incorporeal. Yet it has value; and if it be not sold, it is because no corporeal substance is sufficiently valuable to be received in exchange for it.

Why Intellectual Property Rights? A Lockean Justification

Life itself is incorporeal. Yet it is property; and to take it from its owner is usually reckoned the highest crime that can be committed against him. Thus it will be seen that thoughts are by no means the only incorporeal things that have value, and are subjects of property. Civilized society could not exist without recognizing incorporeal things as property. What is the foundation of the right of property in corporeal things? It is not that they are the products, or creations, of human labor; for, as has already been said, human labor never produces—that is, it never creates —corporeal substances.

But it is simply this—that human labor has been expended upon them —that is, in taking possession of them.


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The right of property, therefore, in corporeal things, has its foundation solely in human labor, which is itself incorporeal. Now it is clear that if labor, which is incorporeal, were not itself a subject of property, it could give the laborer no right of property in those corporeal substances, upon which he bestows his labor.

A right cannot arise out of no right. It is absurd, therefore, to say that a man has no right of property in his labor, for the reason that labor is incorporeal, and yet to say that that same labor, which is not his, can give him a right to a corporeal substance, to which he confessedly has no other right, than that he has Edition: current; Page: [ 36 ] expended labor upon it.

If labor itself be not a subject of property, it follows, of necessity, that it can give the laborer no right of property in any thing else. The necessary consequence, therefore, of denying the right of property in incorporeal things, as labor, for example, is to deny the right of property in corporeal things; because the right to the latter is only a result, or consequence, of a right to the former.


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  • If, therefore, we deny the right of property in incorporeal things, we must deny all rights of property whatsoever. The idea, therefore, that incorporeal things cannot be subjects of property, is simply absurd, since it goes necessarily to the denial of all property; and since also it is itself denied by the common sense, the constant practice, and, above all, by the universal necessities, of mankind at large.

    On the other hand, if we admit a right of property in incorporeal things at all, then ideas are as clearly legitimate subjects of property, as any other incorporeal things that can be named. They are, in their nature, necessarily personal possessions; they have value; they are the products of labor; they are indispensable to the happiness, well-being, and even subsistence of man; they can be possessed by one man, and not by another; they can be imparted by one man to another; yet no one can demand them of another as a right; and, as has before been said and shown, they are continually bought and sold as merchandise.

    The distinction, however, between corporeal and incorporeal things, as subjects of property, is one entirely groundless in itself, and entirely unworthy of the Edition: current; Page: [ 37 ] advanced reason of the present day; or even of any modern day; although modern days have seen the argument urged. Mankind have doubtless never consistently adhered to the theory that only corporeal things could be subjects of property.

    Probably in the darkest barbarism—certainly since the earliest history of civilization—incorporeal things, of various kinds, have been subjects of purchase and sale.