Property law is the area of law that governs the various forms of ownership and tenancy in real property (land as distinct from personal or movable possessions) and in personal property, within the common law legal system. In the civil law system, there is a division between movable and immovable property. Movable property roughly corresponds to personal property, while immovable property corresponds to real estate or real property, and the associated rights, and obligations thereon.

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The concept, idea or philosophy of property underlies all property law. In some jurisdictions, historically all property was owned by the monarch and it devolved through feudal land tenure or other feudal systems of loyalty and fealty.

Though the Napoleonic code was among the first government acts of modern times to introduce the notion of absolute ownership into statute, protection of personal property rights was present in medieval Islamic law and jurisprudence, and in more feudalist forms in the common law courts of medieval and early modern England.

Property rights and rights to people

Property rights are rights over things enforceable against all other persons. By contrast, contractual rights are rights enforceable against particular persons. Property rights may, however, arise from a contract; the two systems of rights overlap. In relation to the sale of land, for example, two sets of legal relationships exist alongside one another: the contractual right to sue for damages, and the property right exercisable over the land. More minor property rights may be created by contract, as in the case of easements, covenants, and equitable servitudes.

A separate distinction is evident where the rights granted are insufficiently substantial to confer on the nonowner a definable interest or right in the thing. The clearest example of these rights is the license. In general, even if licenses are created by a binding contract, they do not give rise to property interests.

Property rights and personal rights

Property rights are also distinguished from personal rights. Practically all contemporary societies acknowledge this basic ontological and ethical distinction. In the past, groups lacking political power have often been disqualified from the benefits of property. In an extreme form, this has meant that people have become “objects” of property—legally “things” or chattels. More commonly, marginalized groups have been denied legal rights to own property. These include Jews in England and married women in Western societies until the late 19th century.

The dividing line between personal rights and property rights is not always easy to draw. For instance, is one’s reputation property that can be commercially exploited by affording property rights to it? The question of the proprietary character of personal rights is particularly relevant in the case of rights over human tissue, organs and other body parts.

There have been recent cases of women being subordinated to the fetus, through the imposition of unwanted caesarian sections. English judges have recently made the point that such women lack the right to exclusive control over their own bodies, formerly considered a fundamental common-law right. In the United States, a “quasi-property” interest has been explicitly declared in the dead body. Also in the United States, it has been recognized that people have an alienable proprietary “right of publicity” over their “persona”. The patent/patenting of biotechnological processes and products based on human genetic material may be characterized as creating property in human life.

A particularly difficult question is whether people have rights to intellectual property developed by others from their body parts. In the pioneering case on this issue, the Supreme Court of California held in Moore v. Regents of the University of California (1990) that individuals do not have such a property right.