The legal definition of property is “anything that is owned by a person or entity.” Property can be a tangible or intangible object, or in some cases an idea, that is owned by someone. Ownership of property gives the owner the right to possess and use the property, as well as the right to exclude any others from the right to possess and use the property in question.
There are two components that make up property: possession, and title. Possession refers to the physical control over the property. Title is the legal documentation that states who has the right to possess and control that specific property. For example, a real estate title refers to legal ownership of a parcel of land, by a person who owns it.
Owning the land gives the owner the right to live on that land, and do as they want with it, within the bounds of their title and local laws and ordinances. Title and possession are very important in determining who legally owns and has the right to use the property.
Essentially, property can be divided into three categories: real property, personal property, and intellectual property.
Real Property: Real property refers to fixed property, and can also be called immovable property. Examples of real property include buildings, crops, fences, land, and machinery. Real property is any interest in land, including anything permanently affixed to the land in question. It can further be broken down into residential and commercial real estate.
Residential real estate refers to an area that has been developed for people to live in. It cannot be used for commercial or industrial purposes. Single family homes, apartment complexes, and duplex homes are some examples of residential real estate. Commercial real estate is property that is to be solely utilized for business purposes. Examples include gas stations, strip malls, hotels, and restaurants.
Personal Property: Personal property is the opposite of real property; thus, personal property is movable, and are belongings that exclude land and buildings. It is any interest in anything other than land. If the property can be moved from one location to another, it is generally personal property. Examples of personal property are numerous and varied.
Personal property can be further divided into tangible and intangible. Tangible property is personal property that may be physically handled, including vehicles, money, furniture, clothing, and books. Intangible personal property is property that cannot be physically handled, such as stocks, bonds, trust fund accounts, etc.
Intellectual Property: Intellectual property, or IP, is a broad term referring to property rights vested in the intangible. It is intangible personal property and refers to any invention, creation, discovery, innovation, improvement, symbol, or design used in commerce. Ownership rights to intellectual property can be temporarily given away through a licensing agreement.
There are four main areas of intellectual property:
- Copyright Law: A copyright is the right to prevent others from using your originally authored work. Having a copyright entitles the owner to the right to reproduce and distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public for sale, as well as licensing rights to manufacture and make a product. Some examples of creative works that can be copyrighted include recorded or sheet music, books, video games, and art (paintings, plays, dance choreography, etc);
- Patent Law: A patent is something given to an inventor, in order to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention. It is given to an inventor to protect their invention. They typically exist for twenty years, and can be used for any invention in any field of technology. In general, the invention must be new, unique, and generally unobvious in order to receive a patent. Patents can be divided into utility (the invention must be at least moderately useful), design (the design must be novel, unobvious, and non functional), and plant (the plant created must be novel and not obvious);
- Trademark Law: A trademark is a word, phrase, or other symbol that is used to identify a product, the source of a product, and the manufacturer or merchant. The most common types of trademarks are service mark (promotes a particular type of service), trade dress (when a product is known for its special packaging), collective mark (a symbol, word, or phrase used to identify a group, organization, or association), and certification mark (a symbol or name used to guarantee the quality of another’s service or product); or
- Trade Secret Law: A trade secret is valuable information that gives a business a competitive edge over other businesses. Examples include a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process. Trade secret information must not be known to the public, be economically beneficial to the holder; and, the information holder must make a reasonable effort to maintain the information’s secrecy.
As you can see, property law may become increasingly complex, and, thus, requires not only a thorough understanding of property law in general, but also varying jurisdiction rules. A skilled and knowledgeable property attorney can help simplify the process, help you understand your local state laws, as well as represent you in court should there be a property dispute. The attorney will also be able to educate you on your rights, and help you protect your property interests.