Your debtor’s come clean on stocks, bonds and a condominium he owns, but you suspect he has valuable intellectual property rights acquired during marriage. Half the value of those rights is yours, but first you have to find the property.
Intellectual property is like other kinds of property in several respects. It’s sometimes as easy to find as real property (i.e. land, houses, condominiums) because it’s usually subject to the requirement that it be registered with the government. Unlike cars or boats, you can’t really hide it physically.
But like other kinds of property, intellectual property can be bought and sold, which can make it tougher to identify. If your debtor invented something and registered it in his name, that’s easy. But if your debtor acquired some else’s patent and assigned it to a new company he just formed, the search is not straightforward.
The clock may also be ticking on this asset search: unlike a piece of land, which you can theoretically own forever, most intellectual property expires. All U.S. patents and copyrights expire, but trademarks can go on and on for decades or longer – think “Coke” or “Chevy.”
The U.S. Copyright Office here keeps track of books, music, art and other “works of authorship” in which the U.S. has invested a property right. Unlike other kinds of intellectual property, copyright starts when the work is created. It doesn’t have to be registered to be effective. But if you want to sue someone for violating a copyright, registration with the Copyright Office is mandatory.
The Copyright Office maintains a separate database for the design of vessel hulls, so if your debtor is a boat designer (or may have been assigned the copyright by a boat designer), make sure to look here.
Patents and trademarks are logged in the U.S. at a different office, the Patent and Trademark Office here.
Problems arise when intellectual property is assigned to a company the debtor controls, but that you don’t know about. Once this happens, the hunt of intellectual property is like a hunt for real estate, securities or other property held in a secret side corporation by your debtor, and detailed here.
Among the ways to find such secret companies: looking at litigation in which the person was sued personally as well as via a company he runs, and always trying to see who owns the place he lives and the place he works.
Of course, the above covers only U.S.-registered intellectual property. You may also want to consult the European Union’s Office for the Harmonization for the Internal Market, which keeps the EU’s database of registered trademarks and designs, here.