Rose, C. M. (1985). Possession as the Origin of Property. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1830.
Fascinating, beautifully written article by Carol Rose explaining the relationship between possession (especially first or prior possession) and ownership from the point of view of legal theory.
Many psychologists investigating ownership in children have tried to disentangle first possession from other principles such as invested labor. Also, psychologists have tended to consider possession as a kind of direct, physical relationship between a person and an object. Rose, however, provides reasons to mistrust those positions and makes clear that possession is much more complex than common sense dictates, for three reasons at least:
1) Legal decisions that supposedly applied a first possession doctrine (e.g., the famous Pierson v. Post case) incorporate other principles as well, such as “reward to useful labor”. Actually, John Locke’s labor theory of property can be seen as very close and akin to the first possession principle. He makes it clear that it is the first agent who takes control of a natural resource through her work that gains ownership over it. He uses the simple example of picking an apple: the apple becomes mine when I pick it because I have added my labor to it and made it my property. Notice that, in this case, the added labor is minimal, and the crucial factor is that I picked the apple before anybody else. First possession and labor theories of ownership are similar and related to each other; they even imply each other.
2) Possession is not a direct grasping or grabbing of an object. Possession only takes place in the context of intersubjective conflict, or at least competition and potential conflict. Although there are precursors of possessiveness and territoriality in animals, human possession is not a purely natural, physical relationship between a person and a thing. Rather, it is a social act that follows proto-institutional or institutional (in Searle’s sense) rules.
3) Among those social and proto-institutional rules, the rules establishing what counts as giving public notice of an act of possession play a crucial role. For instance, what does a conqueror need to do in order to announce to the world that she has discovered virgin territory and therefore has a legal claim over it?
According to Rose, “common law defines acts of possession as some kind of statement. As Blackstone said, the acts must be a declaration of one’s intent to appropriate.” “Possession now begins to look even more like something that requires a kind of communication, and the original claim to the property looks like a kind of speech, with the audience composed of all others who might be interested in claiming the object in question. Moreover, some venerable statutory law obligates the acquiring party to keep on speaking, lest he lose his title by “adverse possession.”
Possession then requires the possessor to perform certain speech acts (in the technical sense this term has for speech act theory).
I quote Rose again:
“Possession as the basis of property ownership, then, seems to amount to something like yelling loudly enough to all who may be interested. The first to say, “This is mine,” in a way that the public understands, gets the prize, and the law will help him keep it against someone else who says, “No, it is mine.” But if the original communicator dallies too long and allows the public to believe the interloper, he will find that the interloper has stepped into his shoes and has become the owner.”
“Similar ideas of the importance of communication, or as it is more commonly called, “notice,” are implicit in our recording statutes and in a variety of other devices that force a property claimant to make a public record of her claims on pain of losing them altogether. Indeed, notice plays a part in the most mundane property-like claims to things that the law does not even recognize as capable of being reduced to ownership. “Would you please save my place?” one says to one’s neighbor in the movie line, in order to ensure that others in line know that one is coming back and not relinquishing one’s claim.”
“Thus, it turns out that the common law of first possession, in rewarding the one who communicates a claim, does reward useful labor; the useful labor is the very act of speaking clearly and distinctly about one’s claims to property.”