Benefits of viewing the right to privacy as a property right

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in April 2012

1500 words / 7 min.
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There are many approaches to protecting privacy, but many of them run into conflicts, either with existing protections (perhaps especially the First Amendment) or with those who are suspicious of government regulation. But privacy rights do not necessarily need to be protected in a novel new form as a new right – one could instead leverage existing theories of property to do it.

Please note that this post is from 2012. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

There are many approaches to protecting privacy, but many of them run into conflicts, either with existing protections (perhaps especially the First Amendment) or with those who are suspicious of government regulation. But privacy rights do not necessarily need to be protected in a novel new form as a new right  —  one could instead leverage existing theories of property to do it.

Additionally, if a core reason that copyright has always been compatible with the First Amendment is that it is a property right, then perhaps a way out of the conflict between privacy and freedom of speech and the press is to conceive of privacy in the same way  —  as a property right. Certainly it is already on its way there, as the “right of publicity” in many jurisdictions already implicitly does so, since it provides control over unauthorized commercial use by others.

What follows are three approaches the outline some of the benefits of doing exactly this.

Dissolving the Inkblot: Privacy as Property Right

Unsurprisingly, this is an approach libertarian thinkers have already explored. In a 1993 report for the Cato Institute, Sheldon Richman argues for a vision of privacy “that derives privacy rights from a Lockean framework based on each person’s property in his own life, liberty, and estate.” Richman grounds his vision of the right to privacy as a property right embedded in the Constitution:

That the propertarian model of privacy has the full force of the Constitution behind it is evident in the purposes listed in the preamble to the Constitution, in the recurring express references to property, and in the protection of unenumerated rights in the Ninth Amendment.

He additionally argues that viewing privacy as property is supported by older case law as well:

[I]n Boyd v. United States (1886), a search and seizure case involving a businessman, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote that the constitutional guarantees securing people in their persons, houses, papers, and effects transcend the concrete case and “apply to all invasions on the part of government and its employes of the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life. It is not the breaking of his doors, and the rummaging in his drawers, that constitutes the essence of the offense; but it is the invasion of his indefeasible right of personal security, personal liberty and private property.”

Richman argues that “propertarian privacy” provides a consistent philosophical and moral grounding for property rights that protects privacy without giving judges too much leeway:  “To determine whether one has a right of privacy with respect to some act, a judge need only ask what the property rights are.” As a result, contraceptive use is protected through his right to privacy because “each party owns himself or herself. … The same is true … for persons who engage in consensual homosexual sodomy.” Child abuse — even in one’s own home — is not protected “because the child is a self-owner.” Abortion is generally protected because “the fetus comes into existence inside the body of a self-owner.” On the other hand, employers may ban smoking — even in an employee’s home — without violating their right to privacy because the “prospective employee can turn down the job.”

In regards to data privacy legislation, Richmond’s approach would generally not protect privacy unless contractual obligations were violated (this might be seen as protecting confidentiality):

A private firm compiles a computer data base on consumers in order to rent it to direct marketers. Privacy violation? Not if the information was originally provided freely by the consumers (or otherwise lawfully obtained) and all contractual restrictions are observed. But if information was given confidentially, divulgence should be actionable. To be sure, data can be misappropriated, stolen by computer hackers, or used in ways that violate contractual obligations. That is why there are criminal and civil courts.

The Property Rights Origins of Privacy Rights

In The Property Rights Origins of Privacy Rights, Mary Cholpecki explores the historical connections between property and privacy. She points to two English cases as examples of this. First, in Yovatt v. Winyard (1820), what I might call an early trade-secrets case, the court “extended property rights protections to cover personal secrets,” namely, secret formulas for medicines used by a competitor. Cholpecki writes:

Yovatt brings to light the interesting and important fact that “what we now call ‘unfair competition’ and ‘plagiarism’ and ‘privacy’ were all wrapped together, in Yovatt’s time, under the principle of ‘property.'” It was only later that these concepts were separated.

She then discusses Prince Albert v. Strange, a case from 1849 in which Strange is prohibited from selling copies of etchings he had cataloged for Prince Albert:

According to one commentator, the most significant aspect of this case and its underlying philosophy is that it rested on a right of privacy, which the court considered a type of property right. In fact, it appears that until 1890, no English court recognized the right to privacy independent of property rights.

Cholpecki blames Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ 1890 law review article for “divorcing privacy from its historical and intellectual partner, property rights.” Because of this, she argues, in subsequent cases the courts have “muddled the parameters of the right and allowed critics to argue that the right to privacy does not exist in the Constitution.”

She sees hope in the 1977 case of Moore v. City of East Cleveland, where a plurality of justices united in the ruling, some of the basis of a right to privacy and some on the basis of property rights:

The Moore case illustrates the interconnectedness between privacy and property rights. Given the same set of facts, four members of the Court believed privacy rights were jeopardized, while another believed property rights were threatened. Ultimately, the two segments came together to protect the rights at stake. … The most enduring protection for both rights is to view each as indispensable to the other.

Privacy As Intellectual Property?

In “Privacy As Intellectual Property?,” Pamela Samuelson explores the potential benefits and pitfalls of adopting a property-based approach to privacy protections.

First, she writes, viewing data about oneself as private property matches an intuition many of us already have. Since people already have the legal right to exclude people from access (journals locked in a desk drawer, papers stored at home in a file cabinet, etc.), “they may have a sense that they have a property right in the data as well as a legal right to restrict access to it” (1130). Data protection laws reinforce this intuitive sense.

This intuitive sense of property persists even though ownership of data is not the core legal framework in American law for dealing with privacy: “Indeed, the traditional view in American law is that information as such cannot be owned by any person” (1131). Although property rights are involved with Fourth Amendment protections, it is not a property right in the information per se, but rather a property right against trespass. The Fifth Amendment (against self-incrimination) protects a liberty interest in a kind of privacy right, but it is not a property right. If a doctor reveals confidential medical information to a newspaper, a patient’s rights “would arise under contract or privacy law, not from the existence of any property rights in this information” (1131).

Samuelson suggests that granting individuals property rights in their own data might force companies to internalize the costs of privacy — if individuals retain property rights over their own information, even if gathered without their intervention, the companies would need to compensate them (and get permission) for the use by buying the rights, or forgo using the personal data. It would also have the side benefit of potentially increasing the quality of data collected, since individuals and companies would each have an incentive to make sure data is accurate (1133).

Perhaps most importantly, taking a property rights approach would allow market forces and market efficiencies handle privacy concerns, without neglecting the particular desires of individual people, and without extensive (and potentially expensive) government regulations (1135-36).


Both Cholpecki and Richmond write from a libertarian perspective, and both believe that connecting the right to privacy with property rights will helps unify conservative and liberal positions into one that can have positive outcomes for everyone. Samuelson approaches the issue from a critical perspective, but outlines many of the important benefits that a “privacy as property” approach might give — and notes that, especially as many American today dislike government-run anything, a system of privacy rights that leverages and extends existing property rules and regulations would likely achieve significant support.

Relevant cases