Thursday, June 26, 2008
Henry E. Smith (Yale) has posted two new articles on SSRN.
Community custom has played a limited but important role in the law of property. In addition to a few major historic examples such as mining camp rules and whaling, property law sometimes relies on community custom, for example in adverse possession, nuisance law, and beach access. This paper provides an informational theory of custom in property law. Custom is subject to a communicative tradeoff in the law: all else equal, informationally demanding customs require an audience with a high degree of common knowledge. General customs already known throughout society do not require much extra publicity from the law, and the law can piggyback on such customs. By contrast, customs that vary by community raise the question of the need for processing by non-expert audiences, i.e. outgroup dutyholders and government officials. This tradeoff helps explain the differential receptiveness to various customs and the process by which they are formalized if they are adopted into the law. The information cost theory suggests that enthusiasts and skeptics of custom have both tended to ignore this process. The theory is then applied to some suggestive evidence from grazing customs and the pedis possessio doctrine in mining law, under which miners have pre-discovery rights to the spot being worked. Finally, the information cost theory of custom sheds some light on the history and controversies over the numerus clausus (standardization and limitation of the set of basic property forms) and on the question of baselines of property entitlements in the law of takings.
This Article applies an information-cost theory of property to water law. Because of its fluidity, exclusion is difficult in the case of water and gives way to rule of proper use, i.e., governance regimes. Looking at water through this lens reveals that prior appropriation employs more governance and riparianism rests more on a foundation of exclusion than is commonly thought. The development of increasing amounts of exclusion and governance are both compatible with a broadly Demsetzian account that is sensitive to the nature of the resource. Moreover, hybrids between prior appropriation and riparianism are not anomalous. Exclusion strategies based on boundaries and quantification allow for rights to be formal and modular, but this approach is particularly challenging in the case of water and other fugitive resources. The challenges of exclusion that water and other fugitive resources present often lead to a semicommons in which elements of private and common property both coexist and interact.
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