On the Use and Abuse of Overflight Column Doctrine


Many scholars writing on property or intellectual property policy assume that, when commercial aviation became feasible, the ad coelum maxim applied so literally that any airplane automatically trespassed on the air columns above lots of land beneath its flight path.  The ad coelum maxim alienated property doctrine from sensible policies, these assumptions continue, and this disjunction was not fixed until courts reinvigorated property doctrine with new policies in the 1930s and 1940s.

This Article has two goals.  The first is to show that this portrait of overflight litigation is misleading.  In the watershed overflight cases, jurists took for granted that legal “property” has a built-in normative commitment to one fundamental policy goal—that property rights be structured to facilitate all stakeholders being allowed to use those resources concurrently and beneficially, each for his own individual goals.  So in overflight cases, jurists revised the scope of the ad coelum maxim to make sure that the maxim cohered with sound policies already fundamental to property law.  The maxim confirmed landowners’ control over the low-altitude air space reasonably necessary to their beneficial uses of their lots.  But the maxim was found not to apply to high-altitude airspace, because it seemed likely to impede all citizens’ concurrent interests in using airspace as a commons for air travel and transport.

The second goal is to shed light on why contemporary scholarship portrays the ad coelum maxim and the transition in aerial trespass law so inaccurately. The conventional portrait of the overflight transition provides a tempting narrative helping to make traditional rights of exclusive control seem overbroad.  By process of elimination, the “ad coelum fable” helps make seem more attractive alternate property strategies, especially commons approaches and “liability rule” forced transfers of use rights. Although such approaches may be desirable in some situations, they should be judged on their normative merits—not by setting up and then ridiculing straw-man portraits of alternatives.  This Article illustrates with contemporary scholarship on eminent domain and urban redevelopment, and on the Google Books dispute.