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Analysis

A corporation is a very different type of business organization. Most significantly, a corporation is a business entity legally separated from its owners. When business owners decide to incorporate they secure a charter from the state government. This charter is like a birth certificate, establishing the existence of a new and separate legal entity. Once incorporated, the corporation can buy and sell property, enter into contracts, sue, and be sued... just like a living, breathing person.

In fact, that's what a corporation is:  a legal "person."  (The word "incorporate" shares the same root as "corpse"; it means something like "to give it a body.")  The idea is that the corporation is a fictitious person, with many of the same rights under the law as a real person.  

For the sole proprietor turned corporation, there are several benefits. Most importantly, his personal assets (home, car, boat, iPod) are no longer at risk should the corporation have problems. If the corporation is sued, only its assets are at risk. If the corporation goes broke, its creditors can only go after the corporation’s assets. As there is a legal barrier separating the corporation and its owners, the owners enjoy limited liability.

There are other benefits as well. To finance expansion, corporations may sell stock. Most corporations, in fact, do not sell stock to the public; all of the stock is privately owned. But if a company decides to expand its capital base by “going public” it issues an initial public offering or IPO. People buying the stock acquire partial ownership in the corporation. And the more shares they buy, the larger percentage of the corporation they own. Of course, this also means that the original owners also have to share profits. These may be distributed to the shareholders quarterly in the form of dividends.

Corporations may also raise money by selling corporate bonds. Like governments, corporations may issue bonds that promise repayment over a specified period at a certain interest rate.

Another benefit of turning a sole proprietorship or partnership into a corporation is that the business becomes more durable—that is, it is no longer so tied to the health of the founder. If the founder dies, the corporation lives on. Similarly, a corporation is less dependent on the talents of its founders. As corporations grow, they are governed by a board of directors elected by the shareholders. This board selects a president or CEO (chief executive officer) to manage the corporation. A sole proprietorship may have a technically brilliant but, from a business point of view, inept founder. He may turn the business over to his even more incompetent children. But the governing structure of corporations allows management to be handed over to professionally trained executives.

Why It Matters Today

Are corporations people?

The common-sense answer is no.  A corporation is not, to state the obvious, actually a living human being.

But in the eye of the law, the answer is essentially yes.  A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1800s expanded the rights of corporations, eventually extending to them the crucial rights to substantive due process included in the 14th Amendment.  As recently as January 2010, the Court reaffirmed that corporations have most of the rights of real people, overturning a campaign finance law on the grounds that it violated corporations' (and unions') right to free speech.

Sometimes, a Song Says it Better: Breakaway, by Kelly Clarkson

“I’ll spread my wings and learn to fly” – Kelly Clarkson gives a shout-out to all motivated entrepreneurs….breakaway…work on your own. These are the marching orders in Silicon Valley, home of Shmoop as well as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

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