Professor Grimmelmann

University of Maryland

Spring 2016

This syllabus was last updated on February 26.


Here is how the curriculum guide describes this course:

Property is the study of the nature and functions of property as an institution. The course examines the origins, justifications, and characteristics of private property. The characteristics studied include transferability (both voluntary and involuntary), divisibility (both spatial and temporal as well as functional), and relativity (some claims are superior to others). Property prepares students for the upper-class curriculum by allowing them to see how law functions to allocate resources and to create and distribute wealth.

That’s accurate, but a little dry. More colorfully, a little over half a century ago, Felix Cohen wrote:

Suppose we say, that is property to which the following label can be attached:

To the world:

Keep off X unless you have my permission, which I may grant or withhold.

Signed: Private citizen
Endorsed: The state

We here in law school care about capital-P Property because this way of arranging legal relations turns out to be of remarkable importance in the American legal system. “Property” is one of a small handful of basic substantive legal building blocks, like “Tort,” “Contract,” and “Crime,” and like them it has its own course early in the curriculum. Property has earned that place for a variety of linked reasons.

If you want a sense of how the course fits together, imagine a large two-dimensional grid. Along the top are different kinds of property: real estate, natural resources, cars, jewels, books, money, stock, and even sometimes ideas, to name just a few. Along the left are different facets of what it means that these things are “property”: what it means to “own” a thing, how things come to be owned in the first place, what kinds of things can be owned at all, how different people can own different interests in a thing at the same time, how things change owners, and how government can regulate the ownership of things. Over the course of the semester, we will fill in the grid. Our goal for the semester is to fill in the grid; we will take advantage of some important patterns in property law to make the task easier.


Our primary readings will be taken from a coursepack, which will be distributed electronically on Blackboard and in hardcopy from the table outside the copy center on the second floor of the law school. For the most part, these are traditional casebook-style readings, although you will find a few surprises as we proceed. The coursepack is a draft of an “open source” casebook I am writing with several other like-minded property teachers. Instead of selling it for $200 or more through a traditional casebook publisher, we will post it online, so that anyone can download it for free.

We need your help! In the “Discussion Board” section of Blackboard there is a forum for “Casebook Feedback.” Please share with us your ideas for how to improve the materials. Everything from typos to your opinions on what’s working and what isn’t will be greatly appreciated and will help improve the book for future generations of law students. When Jeremy Sheff taught from an earlier draft in the fall, his students posted hundreds of suggestions. Can you do even better?

You will also need a copy of John G. Sprankling, Understanding Property Law (3rd ed. 2012) (“Understanding”). This is a clear, concise, and mostly comprehensive student treatise. I will give parallel reading assignments so that you have a clear reference on the issues we’re discussing in class. In fact, I recommend reading the treatise excerpts first, before you tackle the cases, so that you have a sense of the legal backdrop against which the courts are operating. My teaching philosophy for the course is that the cases are essential to make property law vivid and concrete, but that it is much easier to extract the black-letter rule from a secondary source than from a case.

The following books are not required and I have not asked the bookstore to stock them. They are, however, potentially useful sources if you seek an outside perspective on the material covered in the course.

If you are looking for a source of sample questions and problems, the Examples and Explanations series is usually quite good, and Barlow Burke’s Property entry is no exception. Do not worry about getting the most recent edition; the subject does not move fast enough that changes in the law are substantial.


The course is divided into twenty-six assignments. They are intended to cover roughly two hours of class time each, so that we will read roughly one per class session. Unless I tell you otherwise, please read one assignment each time we meet. I may make slight adjustments to this pace as we proceed; I will announce any changes in class and post them here. Our pace will be relentless; do not let yourself fall behind. I will post the rest of the schedule as the remaining portions of the coursepack are released.

Part I: Owning Property (9 classes)

Part II: Dividing Property (8 classes)

Part III: Transferring Property (5 classes)

Part IV: Regulating Property (4 classes)

Class Meetings

We meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9:50 AM to 11:50 AM in Room 107. We will take a ten-minute break somewhere towards the middle of each class session. We will not meet on Thursday, March 3. I will schedule a make-up class sometime during the semester, most likely on a Friday.

Here is what I expect from you in class:

I want our classroom to be a welcoming space, one where we all learn from the diversity of each others’ experiences and perspectives. If anything in or out of class troubles you in a way that you think might affect your participation or learning, please come and talk to me about it. Not all discomfort is avoidable, but I will do everything I can to help that is consistent with the educational goals of the course. I will also respect any requests for confidentiality as far as my legal and professional duties allow.

In particular, if for any reason your preferred name is not the one that appears on the course roster, please let me know how you would rather be addressed. (For example, I typically have several students a semester who go by their middle names rather than their first names.) It’s a small thing, but one there is no reason I should get wrong.


We are members of an academic community built on respect, trust, and honesty. I will take you at your word; in return, I expect you to be truthful and candid in your dealings with me and your classmates.

Your conduct in this course is subject to the Student Honor Code. I encourage to collaborate in preparing for class and in studying, but in the classroom and on the exam your work must be exclusively your own.

Final Examination

Your grade will be determined principally on the basis of a final examination, to be held on a data and time to be determined by the registrar. It will be an in-class, closed-book, essay examination, and subject to a strictly enforced word limit. I will discuss the format in class later in the semester, but as of now I anticipate:

I may adjust exmination grades grade up or down by one-third of a grade based on class participation. I consider good class participation to be anything that helps your fellow students learn, and poor participation to be anything that obstructs their learning.

Under no circumstances may you discuss the contents of the examination with any other person until after the end of the examination period. You may not ask any other person for help during the examination; your work must be entirely your own. The examination is subject to the Honor Code.

All my previous examinations are available from my courses webpage. Select the appropriate course and scroll to the bottom for the examination and a memorandum discussing it.

I highly recommend John Langbein’s advice on Writing Law Examinations.


Office: Room 231
Phone: 410-706-7260
Email: jgrimmelmann at
Office Hours: Thursdays, 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM

My office hours are the times I reserve for student meetings, not the only times I am available. Appointments are recommended but not required. If my office hours are inconvenient for you, email me to set up another time or just drop by. If the door to my office is open, please feel free to come in.

Email is the best way to reach me and will generally lead to the fastest response.

This syllabus is at As the semester progresses, I will post updates to it here.

Final Examination