Add to this variety of origins the many intersections of property law with that of torts and contracts, and the teaching and study of property law becomes a challenge of a different dimension than is encountered in the other subjects. As the topics change, beginning students need to treat each change as if it were the start of a new course, steeping themselves in both the context and the body of rules and doctrines governing each new topic.
Putting the various contexts you study into perspective should help you realize that the study of property is often the study of tenures—using an old-fashioned word for the study of the many ways in which property may be possessed or held—rather than the study of property itself. Thus the study of property is of the various interests that define the rights of its holder and of the documents conveying various interests in property and defining how it may be used, kept, or sold. It is also the study of deeds, leases, and the various other documents that purport to create or transfer it or an interest in it.
Property is not a thing wanted for itself, and property law is not about one person’s relationship to a thing. Instead, it is about relationships between and among persons with regard to a thing. Property permits one person to exclude another from using a thing; to use it personally to gain rents, profits, or income from it; to sell it; or to give it by will to one relative and not another. All this is possible only when one’s relationship to property is clear insofar as others are bound to respect it.
Property law is a series of rules defining a person’s relationship to a thing that others must respect. That person is called an owner. The primary right of an owner is the right to exclude others from using or profiting from a thing. If the thing is movable, the thing becomes personal property. Land and the improvements on it become real property. The study of property generally includes both personal and real property, with a touch of intellectual property.
Defining property as a three-way relationship (owner to thing, others to thing, and owner to others) requires that the legal rules pertaining to it have widespread support. Support in this sense is the result of an appeal to the terms of a legal rule, its underlying policies and historical precedent, the judicial procedures in which the rule was formed, and the philosophy of law or jurisprudence underlying all of these.
Property law is the creation of society, useful to make society function, and not a product of natural law, although most would also say that property supports and enhances a person’s identity and that a person’s acquisitiveness is as close to a natural instinct as one can come.