Intangible assets are defined as identifiable non-monetary assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured, which are created through time and/or effort and that are identifiable as a separate asset. There are two primary forms of intangibles – legal intangibles (such as trade secrets (e.g., customer lists), copyrights, patents, and trademarks) and competitive intangibles (such as knowledge activities (know-how, knowledge), collaboration activities, leverage activities, and structural activities). Legal intangibles are known under the generic term intellectual property and generate legal property rights defensible in a court of law. Competitive intangibles, whilst legally non-ownable, directly impact effectiveness, productivity, wastage, and opportunity costs within an organization – and therefore costs, revenues, customer service, satisfaction, market value, and share price. Human capital is the primary source of competitive intangibles for organizations today. Competitive intangibles are the source from which competitive advantage flows, or is destroyed. The area of finance that deals with intangible assets is known as Intangible Asset Finance.
The Uniform Commercial Code (Section 9-102(a)(42)) defines “general intangibles” as
- “any personal property…other than accounts, chattel paper, commercial tort claims, deposit accounts, documents, goods, instruments, investment property, letter of credit rights, letters of credit, money, and oil, gas, or other minerals before extraction. The term includes payment intangibles and software.”
Intangible Assets vs. Goodwill
While goodwill is technically an intangible asset, it is usually listed as a separate item on a company’s balance sheet. As a distinct type of intangible asset, goodwill typically comes into play only in an acquisition, and represents the amount of money a company has paid or would pay over the fair value of the net assets to acquire another company.
Research & Development
Millions are spent each year by corporations to research and develop new intangible assets. To protect their research and development (R&D) efforts, corporations generally rely on intellectual property law.
The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) offers some guidance (IAS 38) as to how intangible assets should be accounted for in financial statements. In general, legal intangibles that are developed internally are not recognized and legal intangibles that are purchased from third-parties are recognized. Wordings are similar to IAS 9.
Under US GAAP, intangible assets are classified into: Purchased vs. internally created intangibles, and Limited-life vs. indefinite-life intangibles.
Intangible assets are typically expensed according to their respective life expectancy. Intangible assets have either an identifiable or indefinite useful life. Intangible assets with identifiable useful lives are amortized on a straight-line basis over their economic or legal life, whichever is shorter. Examples of intangible assets with identifiable useful lives include copyrights and patents. Intangible assets with indefinite useful lives are reassessed each year for impairment. If an impairment has occurred, then a loss must be recognized. An impairment loss is determined by subtracting the asset’s fair value from the asset’s book/carrying value. Trademarks and goodwill are examples of intangible assets with indefinite useful lives. Goodwill has to be tested for impairment rather than amortized. If impaired, goodwill is reduced and loss is recognized in the Income statement.
For personal income tax purposes, some costs with respect to intangible assets must be capitalized rather than treated as deductible expenses. Treasury regulations generally require capitalization of costs associated with acquiring, creating, or enhancing intangible assets. For example, an amount paid to obtain a trademark must be capitalized. Certain amounts paid to facilitate these transactions are also capitalized. Some types of intangible assets are categorized based on whether the asset is acquired from another party or created by the taxpayer. The regulations contain many provisions intended to make it easier to determine when capitalization is required.
Definition of “intangibles” differs from standard accounting, in some US state governments. These governments may refer to stocks and bonds as “intangibles.”
- ^ International Accounting Standards IAS38
- ^ Treas. Reg. § 1.263(a)-4.
- ^ Donaldson, Samuel A. Federal Income Taxation Of Individuals: Cases, Problems and Materials (2nd ed.). St. Paul: Thomson West, 2007. pg. 200.
- ^ Florida Intangible Tax