Usufruct, in simple terms, is the ability to use a piece of property, either for personal utility or for profit, without actually having total ownership of that property. This lack of total ownership of property might mean that the property can not be sold or otherwise transferred by the the person who owns usufruct rights, and it might mean that the property can not be substantially altered. For example, (to use a quite literal interpretation), a person who had usufruct on an orchard could use the fruits for personal consumption, or could sell them, but would not have the right to cut down the orchard and turn it into a field.

The history of usufruct as a concept would probably involve a team of anthropologists and lawyers, but probably every culture has had an idea of usufruct at some time or another. It would often cause misunderstandings between cultures, when the extent of rights being transferred was not clearly laid out. For example, a group of Native Americans might quite willing sell European settlers the right to use a prime hunting or fishing ground, and then be badly surprised to find that the area had been settled for habitation. Usufruct is also not merely a matter of historical interest, since it is still used extensively in certain areas. For example, in the area of Montana where I live, purchasers of property also buy water rights for that property, which does not mean that they actually own the water passing through the property, only the right to use it.

Along with being used as a technical legal definition, the concept of usufruct can also be used as a philosophical notion. The question of how absolute and permanent someone's ownership of a material good can be is obviously a question that could be philosophically troublesome. I think most people would agree that on some level, an earth that has existed long before we did, and will exist long after we did, can never totally be described by our social and legal strictures. In fact, even an entity such as the Catholic Church, in general fairly conservative, states in its catechism:

2403 The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to all of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
This is, to me, a very reasonable description of the philosophical concept of usufruct.

U"su*fruct [L. usufructus, ususfructus, usus et fructus; usus use + fructus fruit.] Law

The right of using and enjoying the profits of an estate or other thing belonging to another, without impairing the substance.



© Webster 1913.

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