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Usufruct is the legal right to use and derive profit or benefit from property that belongs to another person, as long as the property is not damaged. In many legal usufruct systems of property, such as the traditional ejido system in Mexico, individuals or groups may only acquire the usufruct of the property, not legal land ownership.
Usufruct originates from civil law, where it is a real right of limited duration on the property of another. The holder of an usufruct, known as the usufructuary, has the right to use and enjoy the property, as well as the right to receive profits from the fruits of the property. The Latin words usus and fructus refer to the rights of use and fruit, respectively, and the English word usufruct derives from these Latin roots.
In Roman Law, usufruct was a type of servitude or ius in re aliena, a right in another's property. The usufructuary never had possession of this property (on the basis that if he possessed at all, he did so through the owner), but he did have an in rem right to the property itself. Unlike the owner, he did not have the right of alienation (abusus), but he could sell or let his enjoyment of the usufruct. Despite the usufructuary's lack of possession a modified form of the possessory interdicts was available to him.
The term fruits should be understood to mean any replenishable commodity on the property, including (among others) actual fruits, livestock and even rental payments derived from the property. These may be divided into civil and natural fruits, the latter of which, in Roman law, included slaves and livestock.
In tribal cultures usufruct means the land is owned in common by the tribe, but families and individuals have the right to use certain plots of land. Most Indian tribes owned things like land as a group and not as individuals. The family never owned the land, they just farmed it. This is called usufruct land ownership. A person must make (more or less) continuous use of the item or else he loses ownership rights. This is usually referred to as "possession property" or "usufruct." Thus, in this usufruct system, absentee ownership is illegitimate.
The oldest example of usufruct is found in the Law of Moses, which directed property owners not to harvest the edges of their fields, and reserved the gleanings for the poor.
An example of usufruct in modern law, is that eating fruit from an orchard or field is not considered theft unless the taker puts it in a container and carries it off the property.