Tangible vs Intangible Property

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Tangible vs Intangible Property," in The Business Professor, updated January 8, 2015, last accessed April 9, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/tangible-vs-intangible-property/.
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Tangible and Intangible Property
This video explains the difference between tangible and intangible property.

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What is “Property”?

Property is any tangible or intangible physical item, design, creative work, or concept that is owned.

•    Tangible and Intangible Property – Tangible refers to physical property. That is, tangible property is anything that can be physically touched. Intangible property refers to non-physical property. That is, intangible property is any property that cannot be physically touched.

  • Example: Intangible property includes patents, trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights, debts, and company good will.

Discussion: Do you think that there should be a distinction between tangible and intangible property? Why or why not? Should they be afforded the exact same protections? For example, is theft of a copyrighted song the same as stealing someone’s wallet? Why or why not?

Practice Question: Austin purchases a book of photography. Has he purchased tangible or intangible property?

Proposed Answer

  • Tangible personal property has physical substance and can be touched, held and felt. Examples include furniture, cars, baseball cards, comic books, jewelry and art. Intangible personal property includes assets are the opposite of that. Examples include bank account, stocks, bonds, insurance policies and retirement benefit accounts. In the example of the book, Austin has bought a tangible property.

Academic Research

Easton, Peter D., Discussion of Revalued Financial, Tangible, and Intangible Assets: Association with Share Prices and Non Market-Based Value Estimates. Journal of Accounting Research, Supplement 1998. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=143833

Field, Thomas G., Crimes Involving Intangible Property (December 11, 2012). 11 University of New Hampshire Law Review 171 (2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2187786 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2187786

Epstein, Richard A., What Is So Special about Intangible Property? The Case for Intelligent Carryovers (August 16, 2010). U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 524; NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-49. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1659999 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1659999

Arezzo, Emanuela, Struggling Around the Natural Divide: The Protection of Tangible and Intangible Indigenous Property. Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 126; Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=927991 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.927991

Alton, Kelly E. and Borden, Bradley T., Section 1031 Alchemy: Transforming Personal Tangible and Intangible Property into Real Property. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=928518

Teece, David J., Intangible Assets and a Theory of Heterogeneous Firms (September 28, 2016). Forthcoming chapter for A. Bounfour and T. Miyagawa (eds.), Intangibles, Market Failure and Innovation Performance. New York: Springer (2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2844864 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2844864

Salvioni, Daniela, Intangible Assets and Internal Controls in Global Companies. Symphonya. Emerging Issues in Management, n. 2, 2010, pp. 39-51. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2223570

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