When a business becomes insolvent and is subsequently liquidated, the assets of the entity are seized and sold with the view to pay creditors. Intellectual property assets are no exception and assets such as domain names, trademarks and copyrights as well as concepts relating to branding are often lost in the process as well. More often than not, such intellectual property assets are irreplaceable. It is therefore important that time and effort is invested in protecting such assets in the event that a company is put into liquidation.
Separating assets into two or more legal entities as a means of protection has been common practice for some time, with business owners transferring their houses and other personal assets into trusts. However with intellectual property, while it is possible to register legal ownership rights in a trust (provided that ownership is recorded in the joint names of the trustees and not in the name of the trust itself) problems can arise relating to sub-licensing due to consent issues from co-owners. Additionally, the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand is adopting a stricter interpretation of intellectual property laws that prohibits trusts from owning intellectual property.
The separation of assets through the use of limited liability companies is therefore a more suitable vehicle for the purposes of intellectual property asset protection. Separate ownership using companies requires the establishment of two or more registered companies where one company, Company A, owns the intellectual property and the other company, Company B, acquires a licence from Company A to sub-licence the intellectual property to clients.
All ownership of the intellectual property assets are vested in Company A, and Company B at no stage actually owns the intellectual property. In the event that Company B becomes insolvent, its creditors are not able to lay claim to the intellectual property assets by virtue of it being owned by a separate legal entity, Company A.
This model is particularly suited to software companies as they don’t sell their products, but rather license them by granting a customer non-exclusive rights to use the software. The actual software remains the property of the original owner. The separate-ownership model can also be tailored to suit most business genres.
Although appropriate licences and insurance policies are worthy components of risk management, many policies do not guard against insolvency of a company or bankruptcy. As a consequence, while some effort may be required in setting up an appropriate structure, separating valuable intellectual property could be well worth the time and money.