In modern-day corporate law, the existence of a joint-stock company is often synonymous with incorporation (possession of legal personality separate from shareholders) and limited liability (shareholders are liable for the company's debts only to the value of the money they have invested in the company). Therefore, joint-stock companies are commonly known as corporations or limited companies.
Some jurisdictions still provide the possibility of registering joint-stock companies without limited liability. In the United Kingdom and other countries that have adopted its model of company law, they are known as unlimited companies. In the United States, they are known simply as joint-stock companies.
Ownership refers to a large number of privileges. The company is managed on behalf of the shareholders by a board of directors, elected at an annual general meeting.
The shareholders also vote to accept or reject an annual report and audited set of accounts. Individual shareholders can sometimes stand for directorships within the company if a vacancy occurs, but that is uncommon.
The shareholders are usually liable for any of the company debts that extend beyond the company's ability to pay up to the amount of invested by them
Finding the earliest joint-stock company is a matter of definition. The earliest records of joint stock company can be found in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Around 1250 in France at Toulouse, 96 shares of the Société des Moulins du Bazacle, or Bazacle Milling Company were traded at a value that depended on the profitability of the mills the society owned, making it probably the first company of its kind in history. The Swedish company Stora has documented a stock transfer for an eighth of the company (or more specifically, the mountain in which the copper resource was available) as early as 1288.
In more recent history, the earliest joint-stock company recognized in England was the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, chartered in 1553 with 250 shareholders. Muscovy Company, which had a monopoly on trade between Moscow and London, was chartered soon after in 1555. The much more famous, wealthy and powerful English (later British) East India Company was granted an English Royal Charter by Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, with the intention of favouring trade privileges in India. The Royal Charter effectively gave the newly created Honourable East India Company a 15-year monopoly on all trade in the East Indies. The Company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one that ruled India and exploited its resources, as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, until its dissolution.