A pre-emption right, right of pre-emption, or first option to buy is a contractual right to acquire certain property newly coming into existence before it can be offered to any other person or entity. It comes from the Latin verb emo, emere, emi, emptum, to buy or purchase, plus the inseparable preposition pre, before. A right to acquire existing property in preference to any other person is usually referred to as a right of first refusal.
Under international law, the right of preemption formerly referred to the right of a nation to detain merchandise passing through its territories or seas to afford to its subjects the preference of purchase. That form of right was sometimes regulated by treaty. A 1794 treaty between the United States and Great Britain agreed:
whereas the difficulty of agreeing on precise cases in which alone provisions and other articles not generally contraband may be regarded as such, renders it expedient to provide against the inconveniences and misunderstandings which might thence arise. It is further agreed that whenever any such articles so being contraband according to the existing laws of nations, shall for that reason be seized, the same shall not be confiscated, but the owners thereof shall be speedily and completely indemnified; and the captors, or in their default-the government under whose authority they act, shall pay to the masters or owners of such vessel the full value of all articles, with a reasonable mercantile profit thereon, together with the freight, and also the damages incident to such detention.
In the 18th-century United States, when an individual bought the preemption right to land, he did not buy the land but only the right to buy the land. In the case of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, the syndicate paid Massachusetts $1,000,000 for the pre-emptive rights, and then paid the Indians, who thought they owned the land, $5,000 cash, and an annual $500 annuity forever for their title to the land.
Right of pre-emption. A potential buyer's contractual right to have the first opportunity to buy, at a specified price, if the seller chooses to sell within the contractual period. Also termed 'first option to buy'.
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