One day in 1998, property developer Bill Gertos walked into an empty house on a suburban Sydney street. Deciding it was abandoned, he changed the locks, carried out repair work and leased it to tenants for the next twenty years. Bill Gertos became a squatter.
When the descendants of the house’s original owner discovered Gertos’ possession of their property in 2017 and launched a legal bid to retrieve it, the court decided "Mr Gertos succeeded in taking and maintaining physical custody of the land, to the exclusion of all others” and awarded him legal title to the property, now with A$1.7 million. The original owners received not a cent.
Bill Gertos succeeded in gaining what’s called adverse possession - or squatter rights. Squatter rights is a technical piece of law, active in most Western jurisdictions, that allows a person to acquire ownership of property if they have continuously used and possessed it for a period of time.
The legal doctrine of squatter rights says that whoever uses a property, owns the rights to property.
I see squatters using other things that belong to us - intangible assets - like our data, the intellectual property we create, the airspace above our houses. These assets have value, and squatters are making money out of them without our permission.
If we don’t proactively claim ownership over our assets, we run the risk of squatters rights stepping in.
You know all those privacy waiver boxes you’ve ticked? Yeah, apparently you’ve consented to data broker companies you’ve never heard of acquiring and selling pieces of data about you.
These “privacy deathstars” hoover up our publicly available (but intensely private) data hidden in property records, driver license registrations, and marriage licenses, building ‘profiles’ to sell to advertisers, insurers, and credit bureaus. A European Commission study estimated the European data market was worth as much as €106.8bn in 2020.
Data brokers are taking information about your health, income, marital status, media usage, political views, and selling them to others. These assets belong to you.
These companies are squatting on them, extracting their value, and slowly claiming squatters rights as they go.
One day in September 2019, 12-year-old Jaliah Harmon posted her choreographed ‘Renegade’ dance to her 20,000 followers on Instagram. A month later, 15-year-old TikTok user Charli D’Amelio re-enacted Harmon’s dance on her TikTok account without tagging Harmon as its original creator. D’Amelio’s version of the dance went viral, leading her to be appointed the “CEO of Renegade” by fans and burst into mainstream stardom.
In February 2020 Charli D’Amelio featured in a SuperBowl commercial. The same month, Harmon told the New York Times that “I don’t think any of that stuff has happened for me because no one knows I made the dance.”
Enforceable intellectual property rights are almost nowhere to be found in social media, but “credit and attention are valuable even without legal ownership”. Popular and powerful social media figures who present the work of others as their own are squatting on the intellectual property assets of original creators. They extract the valuable credit and attention belonging to those creators who have little ability to enforce their rights.
Intangible rights are not only found in the digital world.
The property rights attached to your home extend from the ground level down through the earth and up through the sky indefinitely, as encoded in law by the Latin phrase Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos, or whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.
DragRace star RuPaul caused a ruckus among fans when he revealed in 2020 that he had leased the “mineral rights” to his Wyoming ranch to oil companies looking for fracking opportunities. Private landowners have the right to decide what happens in the soil under their properties.
Companies are now seeking to occupy the air above landowners, and they’re doing so without the compensation due from oil companies extracting value from the earth.
Courier company UPS’ FlightForward commercial drone delivery services have been granted regulatory authority to begin “unmanned package delivery” using its fleet of drones. Commercial use of the formerly unusable “ultra low-altitude non-navigable” space above private properties is beginning before the owners of that space can grant permission or negotiate compensation.
Drone operators squatting on the airspace above our properties are on their way to claiming squatters rights and eventually ownership.
Squatters rights, a change in ownership rights, have been historically rare because it’s difficult for squatters to find and continuously possess real property. As our assets become increasingly intangible in the digital era, and technology finds new ways to occupy our spaces, we’re smart to assert.