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Gaius states that according to natural reason the first occupier of any previously unowned property becomes the just owner (2nd Century)

The Roman jurist Gaius (130-180) in his collection of Roman law states that according to the principle of “right reason” any previously unowned thing becomes the just property of the first occupant who is able to “capture” it :

§ 65. Thus it appears that some modes of alienation are based on natural law, as tradition, and others on civil law, as mancipation, surrender before the magistrate, usucapion, for these are titles confined to citizens of Rome.

§ 66. Another title of natural reason, besides Tradition, is Occupation, whereby things previously the property of no one become the property of the first occupant, as the wild inhabitants of earth, air, and water, as soon as they are captured.

§ 67. For wild beasts, birds, and fishes, as soon as they are captured, become, by natural law, the property of the captor, but only continue such so long as they continue in his power; after breaking from his custody and recovering their natural liberty, they may become the property of the next occupant; for the ownership of the first captor is terminated. Their natural liberty is deemed to be recovered when they have escaped from his sight, or, though they continue in his sight, when they are difficult to recapture.

§ 65. Thus it appears that some modes of alienation are based on natural law, as tradition, and others on civil law, as mancipation, surrender before the magistrate, usucapion, for these are titles confined to citizens of Rome.

§ 66. Another title of natural reason, besides Tradition, is Occupation, whereby things previously the property of no one become the property of the first occupant, as the wild inhabitants of earth, air, and water, as soon as they are captured.

§ 67. For wild beasts, birds, and fishes, as soon as they are captured, become, by natural law, the property of the captor, but only continue such so long as they continue in his power; after breaking from his custody and recovering their natural liberty, they may become the property of the next occupant; for the ownership of the first captor is terminated. Their natural liberty is deemed to be recovered when they have escaped from his sight, or, though they continue in his sight, when they are difficult to recapture.

§ 68. In the case of those wild animals, however, which are in the habit of going away and returning, as pigeons, and bees, and deer, which habitually visit the forests and return, the rule has been handed down, that only the cessation of the intention of returning is the termination of ownership, and then the property in them is acquired by the next occupant; the intention of returning is held to be lost when the habit of returning is discontinued.

§ 69. Capture from an enemy is another title of property by natural law.

§ 70. Alluvion is another natural mode of acquisition. Alluvion is an addition of soil to land by a river, so gradual that at a particular moment the amount of accretion cannot be determined; or, to use the common expression, an addition made by alluvion is so gradual as to elude our sight.

§ 71. Accordingly a parcel of your land swept away by a river, and carried down to mine, continues your property.

§ 72. An island that rises in the middle of a river is the common property of the proprietors on both banks of the river; if it is not in the middle of the stream, it belongs to the proprietors of the nearer bank.

§ 73. Again, a building erected on my soil, though the builder has made it on his own account, belongs to me by natural law; for the ownership of a superstructure follows the ownership of the soil.

§ 74. The same occurs a fortiori when trees are planted on my land, provided they have struck root.

§ 75. Similarly, when corn is sown on my land.

§ 76. But if I bring an action to recover the land or the building, and refuse to compensate the other party for his outlay on the building or the plantation or the cornfield, he will defeat my action by the plea of fraud, at any rate if he was a bona fide possessor.

§ 77. On the same principle, the writing inscribed on my paper or parchment, even in letters of gold, becomes mine, for the property in the letters is accessory to the paper or parchment; but if I sue for the books or parchment without offering compensation for the writing, my action will be defeated by the plea of fraud.

§ 78. The canvas belonging to me, on which another man has painted, e. g. a portrait, is subject to a different rule, for the ownership of the canvas is held to be accessory to the painting: a difference which scarcely rests on a sufficient reason. By this rule, it is clear that if I am in possession, and you (the painter) claim the portrait without offering to pay the value of the canvas, I may defeat your claim by the plea of fraud. But if you are in possession, the effect is that I am entitled to an equitable action against you, but in this case unless I offer the price of the painting, you defeat me by the plea of fraud, at any rate if you are a bona fide possessor. It is certain, that, if either you or another purloined the canvas, I can bring an action of theft.

§ 79. On a change of species, also, we have recourse to natural law to determine the proprietor. Thus, if grapes, or olives, or sheaves of corn, belonging to me, are converted by another into wine, or oil, or (threshed out) corn, a question arises whether the property in the corn, wine, or oil, is in me, or in the author of the conversion; so too if my gold or silver is manufactured into a vessel, or a ship, chest, or chair is constructed from my timber, or my wool is made into clothing, or my wine and honey are made into mead, or my drugs into a plaster or eye-salve, it becomes a question whether the ownership of the new product is vested in me or in the manufacturer. According to some, the material or substance is the criterion; that is to say, the owner of the material is to be deemed the owner of the product; and this was the doctrine which commended itself to Sabinus and Cassius; according to others the ownership of the product is in the manufacturer, and this was the doctrine favoured by the opposite school; who further held that the owner of the substance or material could maintain an action of theft against the purloiner, and also an action for damages (condictio), because, though the property which is destroyed cannot be vindicated, this is no bar to a condictio or personal action for damages against the thief and against certain other possessors.

About this Quotation:

No body knows exactly when the Roman jurist Gaius lived, or when he wrote his compilation of the Roman laws, or even what his full name was. It is believed he lived sometime from 130 to 180 because he cites legislation which was enacted during this time. It seems likely that his great compilation of the laws appeared around 160 but no one can know for sure. Nevertheless, if it did appear around this time, it makes 2010 the 1,850th anniversary of its appearance and thus we welcome it into our anniversary collection for 2010. We have selected as our quote his statement of the Roman law regarding the right of the first occupier to own previously unowned property, such as land and wild animals. This idea became a cornerstone of John Locke’s theory of property and thus was a key element of English and American law.

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