Two Stories about the Evolution of Property Rights

Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


Saul Levmore


Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. S421-51, 2002


This paper looks at whether everyone benefits from changes in property rights.

Policy Relevance

Any changes in property rights should be viewed with skepticism. These changes can have public benefits, but can also benefit special interests.

Main Points

  • Optimistic explanations of property rights explain that setting boundaries benefits everyone by encouraging investment and allowing trade. Pessimistic accounts explain that property is created at the urging of powerful interest group asking lawmakers for help.

  • Law usually evolves away from open access and public property, towards more restricted access and private property. As communications technology improves, it makes it easier and more beneficial to trade private property. But interest groups might be involved too.

  • Moving away from private property towards open or public property is unusual. Roads offer an example; primitive paths could be used by anyone. Private toll roads are more restricted. But today most roads are public. This change, too, might benefit everyone, or really be about interest groups.

  • Technology has made it easier to make illegal copies of works protected by copyright. Some laws try to restrict this copying and reinforce property rights.

  • It very hard to tell if stronger property rights in the form of copyright will make everyone better off, or if it will only benefit a few interests groups.

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