So I was partaking in a course about Indigenous Peoples of America (and Canada, in particular). One of the questions that arose was "What is ownership?". (It was actually part of an assignment, but it was already graded). Even though the professor gave me quite a good explanation of "ownership" in the perspective of Indigenous people, said concept still perplexes me.

How would someone define something as their own? How would that person know if whatever he/she is trying to possess has been possessed by anyone?

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    How did your professor explain ownership from the perspective of Indigenous people? Nov 3, 2017 at 3:37
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    @MoziburUllah Personally, I don't think this is related to what was being asked, but I am very willing to tell you. He said that Indigenous people do not have the same sense of ownership as European people, as in "this dog is mine". Rather, the Indigenous way when it comes to ownership is "this dog has a relationship with me". If you want the dog's loyalty, you need to take good care of it. There is no one-sided possession. In other words, to Indigenous people, you do not "own" anything. You just have relationships with them.
    – Tri Le
    Nov 3, 2017 at 3:38
  • Thats fine - I was curious; please feel free to re-edit your post or just add a comment. Nov 3, 2017 at 3:43
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    Stanford runs an online encyclopedia that publishes introductory papers by professional philosophers on a wide variety of philosophical topics. The encyclopedia is called the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and they do in fact have an article entitled Property and Ownership. In a similar style, there is also the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which has a similar article . They would both be great places to start your research.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 3, 2017 at 4:01
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    @TriLe They are great resources for any further assignments or other humanities classes that might have relevant topics you happen to take. I definitely recommend following the bibliography for further reading! And as an aside, usually the SEP is written in a more technical way, while the IEP is easier to approach, just in terms of terminology used and background assumptions that are made. But the property article in particular seems to not be too challenging.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 3, 2017 at 4:20

1 Answer 1


There is not a single universal concept of Ownership. Consider the following definitions:


Ownership is the state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property, which may be an object, land/real estate or intellectual property. Ownership involves multiple rights, collectively referred to as title, which may be separated and held by different parties.

Business Dictionary

The ultimate and exclusive right conferred by a lawful claim or title, and subject to certain restrictions to enjoy, occupy, possess, rent, sell, use, give away, or even destroy an item of property.

Ownership may be corporeal (title to a tangible object such as a house) or incorporeal (title to an intangible object, such as a copyright, or a right to recover debt). Possession (as in tenancy) does not necessarily mean ownership because it does not automatically transfer title.

Karl Marx in The German Ideology

The various stages of development in the division of labour are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e. the existing stage in the division of labour determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labour.

These definitions are not equivalent. Business Dictionary only considers ownership when conferred by law. While Wikipedia only considers facts about control and exclusive rights. Marx's definition is pretty much in agreement with Wikipedia's and correctly identifies the source of ownership : relationships among individuals. The laws mentioned by Business Dictionary are one kind of such relationships that give rise to ownership, but not the only ones.

This source of ownership, relationships among individuals, is quite universal. The way individuals relate to each other may give rise to different forms of ownership, but this will always be the source of ownership.

A practical example of conflicting definition of ownership over material things would be :

  • An Android phone with full access. You completely control which software you can install on it at all levels.
  • An iPhone phone. You do not control which software you can install on it. A second party, Apple, gets to restrict which software you can install on it.

Some people would argue you can only truly own the Android phone while the IPhone phone would be at best partially owned. Others would claim you equally own both.

Another example of conflict in definition of ownership would be intellectual property. Thomas Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Here Jefferson was talking about patents. But the concept may be applied to any idea. If a song is copied the copyist has a new song (receives new light) but the "owner" of the original work has the same amount of songs (without darkening me). Compare this with taking an apple from a shop; the shop owner has one less apple and the taker one more. This means that the concept of ownership when applied to ideas is quite different than when applied to materials things.

Yet others would argue that songs can be owned:

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIIA) About piracy:

We also work hard to protect artists and the music community from music theft.

Here RIAA is arguing that songs can be subjected to theft which implies that songs can be owned.

And indeed RIAA is right. Songs can be owned. Since, as seen before, ownership stems from relationships among individuals. And some of those relationships, called laws, grant forms of ownership over those songs.

Of course there are other kinds of relationships among individuals like The Pirate Bay. This means that ownership of songs, and other ideas, is quite limited these days.

How would someone define something as their own?

It is your own if the relationship you have with the individuals around you grant you exclusive rights and control over that something.

How would that person know if whatever he/she is trying to possess has been possessed by anyone?

You ask those in the vicinity.

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