Bell and Parchomovsky, ‘Of Property and Information’

The property-information interface is perhaps the most crucial and under-theorized dimension of property law. Information about property can make or break property rights. Information about assets and property rights can dramatically enhance the value of ownership. Conversely, dearth of information can significantly reduce the benefit associated with ownership. It is surprising, therefore, that contemporary property theorists do not engage in sustained analysis of the property-information interface and in particular of registries — the repositories of information about property.

Once, things were different. In the past, discussions of registries used to be a core topic in property classes and a focal point for property scholarship. In recent decades, registries have lost their luster for scholars, and their discussion has been relegated to the innermost pages of property textbooks. The reason for this is that registries are widely considered the domain of legal practitioners, not of theorists.

We argue that nothing could be further from the truth. Registries and the information they contain are, in fact, the formative forces that shape the world of property and no theoretical account of the institution of property can be complete without them. In this Essay, we offer the first in-depth legal-theoretical analysis of the intricate relationship among title information, rights and assets in the domain of property, as mediated by registries.

Our analysis gives rise to several new insights. First, we highlight the triple role that registries perform for property owners. They simultaneously perform a facilitative role by streamlining transactions between willing sellers and buyers, an obstructive rule by hindering non-consensual encroachments and takings of assets, and an enabling role by allowing owners to locate and use their own lost assets. Second, going against the accepted lore, we posit that perfect registries, even if they were possible, are socially undesirable on account on what we call ‘the information/asset paradox’. Perfect information about assets and legal rights may result in the destruction, dismembering and mutilation of the asset by non-consensual takers in an attempt to make the asset unrecognizable, as exemplified by millions of stolen cars and jewelry, or, conversely, to attempts to engage in ‘identity theft’ in order to give thieves the benefit of the registered rights. Third, we argue that the registries are socially desirable when it is impossible or difficult to alter the defining characteristic of the underlying asset. This insight explains why there are registries for non-transformable assets, such as land and unique artworks, but not for transformable assets that include mass production goods and many natural resources. Finally, we address the question of which rights should be covered by registries and how much legal deference should be given to them.

The framework we provide is significant not only theoretical reasons, but also for practical ones. For example, it can inform policymakers in deciding whether to establish new registries for smart-phones and personal computers in order to combat theft of such devices. Similarly, our analysis sounds a cautionary note about the ability of registries of copyrighted works to curb unlawful appropriation and distribution. Per our analysis, such assets are infinitely malleable and, worse yet, information concerning ownership in such works can be easily effaced or altered in the digital age. We also discuss how considerations of costs and privacy affect the comprehensiveness and integrity of registries. At the end of the day, our analysis exposes the promise and the limitations of registries, as well as the ways in which they can be improved by the state.

Bell, Abraham and Parchomovsky, Gideon, Of Property and Information (July 17, 2015). Columbia Law Review, Forthcoming.

First posted 2015-07-19 15:45:57

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