I have written some software for an American startup that has since gone bankrupt. The intellectual property consists of:

  • Software code
  • Patents that have me listed as their inventor, but that, according to online patent registers, are still assigned to the now defunct company

The company, having had investors, has apparently auctioned off all of its assets, including the intellectual property. I therefore have the following questions:

  • How can I find out whom the intellectual property now belongs to? For the patent, is this possible through the patent office?
  • If the assignee has not been changed in the patent register, is it possible to reassign the patent to myself, since the company has apparently neglected to do so?

I would also be happy about other general advice for this situation. Can you just call the current owner and ask to buy the IP back? How does one go about that?

up vote 1 down vote accepted

How can I find out whom the intellectual property now belongs to? For the patent, is this possible through the patent office?

If it is a patent, the patent office; if it is a copyright, the copyright registrar. You could also look at the return from the auction in the bankruptcy court case file, which would control even if the patent office and copyright registrar records haven't yet been updated.

You could also call the person who conducted the auction, or the lawyer who arranged for the auction, to ask. Often they would cooperate in telling you this information since a bankruptcy auction is, by definition, a public sale anyway, and cooperation might help them gain positive referrals from you in the future.

If the assignee has not been changed in the patent register, is it possible to reassign the patent to myself, since the company has apparently neglected to do so?

No. Doing this would be a form of fraud or embezzlement.

The intellectual property became the property of the bankruptcy estate. If the bankruptcy estate is determined to have property not disposed of in the case, you would have to petition the bankruptcy court to have the remaining assets sold for the benefit of the creditors of the estate at fair market value.

The Follow Up Questions

I'm going to decline to answer the follow up question about how to arrange to purchase intellectual property from someone when you would like to own it, once you determine who the owner is.

This is a more general question that applies to lots of circumstances and is as much a question of economics as law. There is an Ask Patents.SE forum, which might be a more appropriate place to ask that question.

  • 2
    The patent office has an office of recordation, like a county having a register of property deeds. However there is no requirement to record a change of ownership with the USPTO so it is not a reliable way to determine ownership. Buying a patent from its owner is not actually an issue of patent law. Transferring ownership of a patent is called "assigning" the patent and, since a patent is considered personal property for these purposes, is covered by state law, not federal patent law. – George White Apr 26 at 22:38

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