A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible and existing only in contemplation of law. It has neither a mind nor a body of it’s own

Definition : A corporation is a legal entity that is created under the laws of a State designed to establish the entity as a separate legal entity having its own privileges and liabilities distinct from those of its members.[1] There are many different forms of corporations, most of which are used to conduct business. Early corporations were established by charter and many of these chartered companies still exist. Most jurisdictions now allow the creation of a new corporation through registration.

Corporations exist strictly as a product of the corporate law.An important (but not universal) contemporary feature of a corporation is limited liability. If a corporation fails, shareholders normally only stand to lose their investment and employees will lose their jobs, but neither will be further liable for debts that remain owing to the corporation’s creditors.

Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like natural persons (“people”). Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state,[2] and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.[3] Corporations are conceptually immortal but they can “die” when they are “dissolved” either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate ‘death’, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order,[4] but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter.[5]

Although corporate law varies in different jurisdictions, there are four core characteristics of the business corporation:[6

1.      ^

2.      ^ e.g. South African Constitution Art.8, especially Art.(4)

3.      ^ Phillip I. Blumberg, The Multinational Challenge to Corporation Law: The Search for a New Corporate Personality, (1993) discusses the controversial nature of additional rights being granted to corporations.

4.      ^ See, for example, the Business Corporations Act (B.C.) [SBC 2002] CHAPTER 57, Part 10

5.      ^ e.g. Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

6.      ^ RC Clark, Corporate Law (Aspen 1986) 2; See also, Hansmann et al., The Anatomy of Corporate Law (2004) Ch.1, p.2; C. A. Cooke, Corporation, Trust and Company: A Legal History, (1950).

Although corporate law varies in different jurisdictions, there are four core characteristics of the business corporation:[6]

§                     Legal personality

§                     Limited liability

§                     Transferable shares

§                     Centralized management under a broad structure


The word “corporation” derives from corpus, the Latin word for body, or a “body of people.” Entities which carried on business and were the subjects of legal rights were found in ancient Rome, and the  in ancient India.[7] In medieval Europe, churches became incorporated, as did local governments, such as the pope. The point was that the incorporation would survive longer than the lives of any particular member, existing in perpetuity. The alleged oldest commercial corporation in the world, the  mining community  obtained a 1347. Many European nations chartered corporations to lead colonial ventures, such as the  or the , and these corporations came to play a large part in the history of corporate colonism.

Corporate mapping

During the time of colonial expansion in the 17th century, the true progenitors of the modern corporation emerged as the “chartered company”. Acting under a charter sanctioned by the Dutch monarch, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) defeated Portuguese forces and established itself in the Moluccan Islands in order to profit from the European demand for spices. Investors in the VOC were issued paper certificates as proof of share ownership, and were able to trade their shares on the original Amsterdam stock exchange. Shareholders are also explicitly granted limited liability in the company’s royal charter.[8] In the late 18th century, Stewart Kyd, the author of the first treatise on corporate lawin English, defined a corporation as,

a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual, particularly of taking and granting property, of contracting obligations, and of suing and being sued, of enjoying privileges and immunities in common, and of exercising a variety of political rights, more or less extensive, according to the design of its institution, or the powers conferred upon it, either at the time of its creation, or at any subsequent period of its existence.


7.        ^ Vikramaditya S. Khanna (2005). The Economic History of the Corporate Form in Ancient India. University of Michigan.

8.      ^ Om Prakash, European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998).

9.      ^ A Treatise on the Law of Corporations, Stewart Kyd (1793-1794)

When American colonists declared independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from control by English corporations that extracted their wealth and dominated trade. After fighting a revolution to end this exploitation, our country’s founders retained a healthy fear of corporate power and wisely limited corporations exclusively to a business role. Corporations were forbidden from attempting to influence elections, public policy, and other realms of civic society.

Initially, the privilege of incorporation was granted selectively to enable activities that benefited the public, such as construction of roads or canals. Enabling shareholders to profit was seen as a means to that end.

The states also imposed conditions (some of which remain on the books, though unused) like these:

* Corporate charters (licenses to exist) were granted for a limited time and could be revoked promptly for violating laws.

* Corporations could engage only in activities necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose.

* Corporations could not own stock in other corporations nor own any property that was not essential to fulfilling their chartered purpose.

* Corporations were often terminated if they exceeded their authority or caused public harm.

* Owners and managers were responsible for criminal acts committed on the job.

* Corporations could not make any political or charitable contributions nor spend money to influence law-making.

For 100 years after the American Revolution, legislators maintained tight controll of the corporate chartering process. Because of widespread public opposition, early legislators granted very few corporate charters, and only after debate. Citizens governed corporations by detailing operating conditions not just in charters but also in state constitutions and state laws. Incorporated businesses were prohibited from taking any action that legislators did not specifically allow.

States also limited corporate charters to a set number of years. Unless a legislature renewed an expiring charter, the corporation was dissolved and its assets were divided among shareholders. Citizen authority clauses limited capitalization, debts, land holdings, and sometimes, even profits. They required a company’s accounting books to be turned over to a legislature upon request. The power of large shareholders was limited by scaled voting, so that large and small investors had equal voting rights. Interlocking directorates were outlawed. Shareholders had the right to remove directors at will.

In Europe, charters protected directors and stockholders from liability for debts and harms caused by their corporations. American legislators explicitly rejected this corporate shield. The penalty for abuse or misuse of the charter was not a plea bargain and a fine, but dissolution of the corporation.

In 1819 the U.S. Supreme Court tried to strip states of this sovereign right by overruling a lower court’s decision that allowed New Hampshire to revoke a charter granted to Dartmouth College by King George III. The Court claimed that since the charter contained no revocation clause, it could not be withdrawn. The Supreme Court’s attack on state sovereignty outraged citizens. Laws were written or re-written and new state constitutional amendments passed to circumvent the Dartmouth ruling. Over several decades starting in 1844, nineteen states amended their constitutions to make corporate charters subject to alteration or revocation by their legislatures. As late as 1855 it seemed that the Supreme Court had gotten the people’s message when in Dodge v. Woolsey it reaffirmed state’s powers over “artificial bodies.”

But the men running corporations pressed on. Contests over charter were battles to control labor, resources, community rights, and political sovereignty. More and more frequently, corporations were abusing their charters to become conglomerates and trusts. They converted the nation’s resources and treasures into private fortunes, creating factory systems and company towns. Political power began flowing to absentee owners, rather than community-rooted enterprises.

The industrial age forced a nation of farmers to become wage earners, and they became fearful of unemployment–a new fear that corporations quickly learned to exploit. Company towns arose. and blacklists of labor organizers and workers who spoke up for their rights became common. When workers began to organize, industrialists and bankers hired private armies to keep them in line. They bought newspapers to paint businessmen as heroes and shape public opinion. Corporations bought state legislators, then announced legislators were corrupt and said that they used too much of the public’s resources to scrutinize every charter application and corporate operation.

Government spending during the Civil War brought these corporations fantastic wealth. Corporate executives paid “borers” to infest Congress and state capitals, bribing elected and appointed officials alike. They pried loose an avalanche of government financial largesse. During this time, legislators were persuaded to give corporations limited liability, decreased citizen authority over them, and extended durations of charters. Attempts were made to keep strong charter laws in place, but with the courts applying legal doctrines that made protection of corporations and corporate property the center of constitutional law, citizen sovereignty was undermined. As corporations grew stronger, government and the courts became easier prey. They freely reinterpreted the U.S. Constitution and transformed common law doctrines.

One of the most severe blows to citizen authority arose out of the 1886 Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Though the court did not make a ruling on the question of “corporate personhood,” thanks to misleading notes of a clerk, the decision subsequently was used as precedent to hold that a corporation was a “natural person.”

From that point on, the 14th Amendment, enacted to protect rights of freed slaves, was used routinely to grant corporations constitutional “personhood.” Justices have since struck down hundreds of local, state and federal laws enacted to protect people from corporate harm based on this illegitimate premise. Armed with these “rights,” corporations increased control over resources, jobs, commerce, politicians, even judges and the law.

A United States Congressional committee concluded in 1941, “The principal instrument of the concentration of economic power and wealth has been the corporate charter with unlimited power….”

Many U.S.-based corporations are now transnational, but the corrupted charter remains the legal basis for their existence. At, we believe citizens can reassert the convictions of our nation’s founders who struggled successfully to free us from corporate rule in the past. These changes must occur at the most fundamental level — the U.S. Constitution.

Corporate law

The existence of a corporation requires a special legal framework and body of law that specifically grants the corporation legal personality, and typically views a corporation as a fictional person, a legal person, or a moral person (as opposed to a natural person). Corporate statutes typically empower corporations to own property, sign binding contracts, and pay taxes in a capacity separate from that of its shareholders (who are sometimes referred to as “members”). According to Lord Chancellor Haldane,

…a corporation is an abstraction. It has no mind of its own any more than it has a body of its own; its active and directing will must consequently be sought in the person of somebody who is really the directing mind and will of the corporation, the very ego and centre of the personality of the corporation.


The legal personality has two economic implications. First it grants creditors (as opposed to shareholders or employees) priority over the corporate assets upon liquidation. Second, corporate assets cannot be withdrawn by its shareholders, nor can the assets of the firm be taken by personal creditors of its shareholders. The second feature requires special legislation and a special legal framework, as it cannot be reproduced via standard contract law.[10]

Ownership and control

Persons and other legal entities composed of persons (such as trusts and other corporations) can have the right to vote or receive dividends once declared by the board of directors. In the case of for-profit corporations, these voters hold shares of stock and are thus called shareholders or stockholders. When no stockholders exist, a corporation may exist as a non-stock corporation (in the United Kingdom, a “company limited by guarantee”) and instead of having stockholders, the corporation has members who have the right to vote on its operations. Voting members are not the only members of a “Corporation”. The members of a non-stock corporation are identified in the Articles of Incorporation (UK equivalent: Articles of Association) and the titles of the member classes may include “Trustee,” “Active,” “Associate,” and/or “Honorary.” However, each of these listed in the Articles of Incorporation are members of the Corporation. The Articles of Incorporation may define the “Corporation” by another name, such as “The ABC Club, Inc.” and, in which case, the “Corporation” and “The ABC Club, Inc.” or just “The Club” are considered synonymous and interchangeable as they may appear elsewhere in the Articles of Incorporation or the By-Laws.

10.     ^ Lennard’s Carrying Co Ltd v Asiatic Petroleum Co Ltd [1915] AC 705

11.   ^ Hansmann et al., The Anatomy of Corporate Law, pg 7.

If the non-stock corporation is not operated for profit, it is called a not-for-profit corporation. In either category, the corporation comprises a collective of individuals with a distinct legal status and with special privileges not provided to ordinary unincorporated businesses, to voluntary associations, or to groups of individuals.

There are two broad classes of corporate governance forms in the world. In most of the world, control of the corporation is determined by a board of directors which is elected by the shareholders. In some jurisdictions, such as Germany, the control of the corporation is divided into two tiers with a supervisory board which elects a managing board. Germany is also unique in having a system known as co-determination in which half of the supervisory board consists of representatives of the employees. The CEO, president, treasurer, and other titled officers are usually chosen by the board to manage the affairs of the corporation.

In addition to the limited influence of shareholders, corporations can be controlled (in part) by creditors such as banks. In return for lending money to the corporation, creditors can demand a controlling interest analogous to that of a member, including one or more seats on the board of directors. In some jurisdictions, such as Germany and Japan, it is standard for banks to own shares in corporations whereas in other jurisdictions such as the United States, under the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, and the United Kingdom, under the Bank of England, banks are prohibited from owning shares in external corporations. However, since 1999 in the U. S., commercial banks have been allowed to enter into investment banking through separate subsidiaries thanks to the Financial Services Modernization Act or Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Since 1997, banks in the U. K. are supervised by the Financial Services Authority; its rules are non-restrictive allowing both foreign and domestic capital to operate all financial institutions, including insurance, commercial and financial banking.[26]

Upon the Board’s decision to dissolve a for-profit corporation, shareholders receive the leftovers, following creditors and others with interests in the corporation. However shareholders receive the benefit of limited liability, so they are liable only for the amount they contributed.

12.     Grosse, Robert E. (2004). The future of global financial services. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 57–62. ISBN 1405117005


Historically, corporations were created by a charter granted by government. Today, corporations are usually registered with the state, province, or national government and regulated by the laws enacted by that government. Registration is the main prerequisite to the corporation’s assumption of limited liability. The law sometimes requires the corporation to designate its principal address, as well as a registered agent (a person or company designated to receive legal service of process). It may also be required to designate an agent or other legal representative of the corporation.

Generally, a corporation files articles of incorporation with the government, laying out the general nature of the corporation, the amount of stock it is authorized to issue, and the names and addresses of directors. Once the articles are approved, the corporation’s directors meet to create bylaws that govern the internal functions of the corporation, such as meeting procedures and officer positions.

The law of the jurisdiction in which a corporation operates will regulate most of its internal activities, as well as its finances. If a corporation operates outside its home state, it is often required to register with other governments as a foreign corporation, and is almost always subject to laws of its host state pertaining to employment, crimes, contracts, civil actions, and the like.


Corporations generally have a distinct name. Historically, some corporations were named after their membership: for instance, “The President and Fellows of Harvard College.” Nowadays, corporations in most jurisdictions have a distinct name that does not need to make reference to their membership. In Canada, this possibility is taken to its logical extreme: many smaller Canadian corporations have no names at all, merely numbers based on a registration number (e.g., “12345678 Ontario Limited”), which is assigned by the provincial or territorial government where the corporation incorporates.

In most countries, corporate names include a term or an abbreviation that denotes the corporate status of the entity (e.g. “Incorporated” or “Inc.” in the United States) or the limited liability of its members (e.g. “Limited” or “Ltd.”). These terms vary by jurisdiction and language. In some jurisdictions they are mandatory, and in others they are not.[27] Their use puts everybody on constructive notice that they are dealing with an entity whose liability is limited, and does not reach back to the persons who own the entity: one can only collect from whatever assets the entity still controls when one obtains a judgment against it.

Some jurisdictions do not allow the use of the word “company” alone to denote corporate status, since the word “company” may refer to a partnership or some other form of collective ownership (in the to United States it can be used by a sole proprietorship but this is not generally the case elsewhere).

Financial disclosure

In many jurisdictions, corporations whose shareholders benefit from limited liability are required to publish annual financial statements and other data, so that creditors who do business with the corporation are able to assess the creditworthiness of the corporation and cannot enforce claims against shareholders.[13] Shareholders therefore sacrifice some loss of privacy in return for limited liability. This requirement generally applies in Europe, but not in Anglo-American jurisdictions, except for publicly traded corporations, where financial disclosure is required for investor protection.

Unresolved issues

The nature of the corporation continues to evolve in response to new situations as existing corporations promote new ideas and structures, the courts respond, and governments issue new regulations. A question of long standing is that of diffused responsibility. For example, if a corporation is found liable for a death, how should culpability and punishment for it be allocated among shareholders, directors, management and staff, and the corporation itself? See corporate liability, and specifically, corporate manslaughter.

The law differs among jurisdictions, and is in a state of flux. Some argue that shareholders should be ultimately responsible in such circumstances, forcing them to consider issues other than profit when investing, but a corporation may have millions of small shareholders who know nothing about its business activities. Moreover, traders — especially hedge funds — may turn over shares in corporations many times a day.[29] The issue of corporate repeat offenders (see H. Glasbeak, “Wealth by Stealth: Corporate Crime, Corporate Law, and the Perversion of Democracy”, ISBN 978-1896357416, Between the Lines Press: Toronto 2002) raises the question of the so-called “death penalty for corporations.”[14]

13.     See, for example, the Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act.

14.     ^ CorpWatch : The Death Penalty for Corporations Comes of Age


Most corporations are registered with the local jurisdiction as either a stock corporation or a non-stock corporation. Stock corporations sell stock to generate capital. A stock corporation is generally a for-profit corporation. A non-stock corporation does not have stockholders, but may have members who have voting rights in the corporation.

Some jurisdictions (Washington, D.C., for example) separate corporations into for-profit and non-profit, as opposed to dividing into stock and non-stock.

Several states also allow a variation of the corporation for use by professionals (i.e., those individuals typically considered as professionals who require a license from the state to conduct business). In some states, such as Georgia, these corporations are known as “professional corporations”.

I. For-profit and non-profit

In modern economic systems, conventions of corporate governance commonly appear in a wide variety of business and non-profit activities. Though the laws governing these creatures ofstatute often differ, the courts often interpret provisions of the law that apply to profit-making enterprises in the same manner (or in a similar manner) when applying principles to non-profit organizations — as the underlying structures of these two types of entity often resemble each other.

Closely held corporations and publicly traded corporations

The institution most often referenced by the word “corporation” is a publicly traded corporation, the shares of which are traded on a public stock exchange (e.g., the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq in the United States) where shares of stock of corporations are bought and sold by and to the general public. Most of the largest businesses in the world are publicly traded corporations. However, the majority of corporations are said to be closely heldprivately held or close corporations, meaning that no ready market exists for the trading of shares. Many such corporations are owned and managed by a small group of businesspeople or companies, although the size of such a corporation can be as vast as the largest public corporations.

Closely held corporations do have some advantages over publicly traded corporations. A small, closely held company can often make company-changing decisions much more rapidly than a publicly traded company. A publicly traded company is also at the mercy of the market, having capital flow in and out based not only on what the company is doing but the market and even what the competitors are doing. Publicly traded companies also have advantages over their closely held counterparts. Publicly traded companies often have more working capital and can delegate debt throughout all shareholders. This means that people invested in a publicly traded company will each take a much smaller hit to their own capital as opposed to those involved with a closely held corporation. Publicly traded companies though suffer from this exact advantage. A closely held corporation can often voluntarily take a hit to profit with little to no repercussions (as long as it is not a sustained loss). A publicly traded company though often comes under extreme scrutiny if profit and growth are not evident to stock holders, thus stock holders may sell, further damaging the company. Often this blow is enough to make a small public company fail.

Often communities benefit from a closely held company more so than from a public company. A closely held company is far more likely to stay in a single place that has treated them well, even if going through hard times. The shareholders can incur some of the damage the company may receive from a bad year or slow period in the company profits. Closely held companies often have a better relationship with workers. In larger, publicly traded companies, often when a year has gone badly the first area to feel the effects are the work force with lay offs or worker hours, wages or benefits being cut. Again, in a closely held business the shareholders can incur this profit damage rather than passing it to the workers.

The affairs of publicly traded and closely held corporations are similar in many respects. The main difference in most countries is that publicly traded corporations have the burden of complying with additional securities laws, which (especially in the U.S.) may require additional periodic disclosure (with more stringent requirements), stricter corporate governance standards, and additional procedural obligations in connection with major corporate transactions (e.g. mergers) or events (e.g. elections of directors).

A closely held corporation may be a subsidiary of another corporation (its parent company), which may itself be either a closely held or a public corporation. In some jurisdictions, the subsidiary of a listed public corporation is also defined as a public corporation (e.g., Australia).

II.            ]Mutual benefit corporations

A mutual benefit nonprofit corporation is a corporation formed in the United States solely for the benefit of its members. An example of a mutual benefit nonprofit corporation is a golf club. Individuals pay to join the club, memberships may be bought and sold, and any property owned by the club is distributed to its members if the club dissolves. The club can decide, in its corporate bylaws, how many members to have, and who can be a member. Generally, while it is a nonprofit corporation, a mutual benefit corporation is not a charity. Because it is not a charity, a mutual benefit nonprofit corporation cannot obtain 501(c)(3) status. If there is a dispute as to how a mutual benefit nonprofit corporation is being operated, it is up to the members to resolve the dispute since the corporation exists to solely serve the needs of its membership and not the general public.


§                     A.B. DuBois, The English Business Company after the Bubble Act, , (1938)

§                     A Comparative Bibliography: Regulatory Competition on Corporate Law

§                     Bishop Hunt, The Development of the Business Corporation in England (1936)

§                     Blumberg, Phillip I., The Multinational Challenge to Corporation Law: The Search for a New Corporate Personality, (1993)

§                     Bromberg, Alan R. Crane and Bromberg on Partnership. 1968.

§                     Bruce Brown, The History of the Corporation (2003)

§                     C. A. Cooke, Corporation, Trust and Company: A Legal History, (1950)

§                     Charles Freedman, Joint-stock Enterprise in France, : From Privileged Company to Modern Corporation (1979)

§                     Conard, Alfred F. Corporations in Perspective. 1976.

§                     Dignam, A and Lowry, J (2006) Company Law, Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-928936-3

§                     Ernst Freund,, The Legal Nature of the Corporation (1897)

§                     Edwin Merrick Dodd, American Business Corporations until 1860, With Special Reference to Massachusetts, (1954)

§                     John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. The Company: a Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. New York: Modern Library. 2003.

§                     Frederick Hallis, Corporate Personality: A Study in Jurisprudence (1930)

§                     Hessen, Robert. In Defense of the Corporation. Hoover Institute. 1979. ISBN -X

§                     John P. Davis, Corporations (1904)

§                     John William Cadman, The Corporation in New Jersey: Business and Politics, , (1949)

§                     Joseph S. Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations (1917)