I worked for a company that went through a bankruptcy and was forced to close. All the physical assets were sold off. I don't want to reveal the company's name, but they were in a very unique industry and acquired a significant amount of industry specific data over the years. This information is very valuable to other people in the industry.

It recently came to my attention that several other people in the industry have copies of this information/data.

Are there any legal ramifications to having that intellectual property that once belonged to the now bankrupt company? Does the owner of the bankrupt business have any rights to the intellectual property?

I was told by someone that since the data belonged to the bankrupt company it was "public knowledge". That just doesn't seem right to me.

If anyone can shed some light on this issue I would really appreciate it. The reason I am asking is that I was recently asked to help with an IT project which would require incorporating this data that is now in the hands of multiple people.

Would I be putting myself at any risk to provide tools to work with this data (intellectual property) that belonged to the bankrupt company?

  • No clue here, but here's an example: I still retain full rights to a book that I author for 70 years after I die. Not like I'm dying anytime soon...
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 1:09

1 Answer 1


Based on your description, it may not be property. Let us say that the IP in question is acoustic readings from sending sound waves into the ground (revealing huge oil reserves). I also assume that you are certain that this IP fell through the cracks and there was no official transfer. That table of data could be subject to copyright restrictions, so that people could not legally copy the table, but they could still make use of the data. Copyright protects the mode of expression, not the underlying facts (which would include the measurements). See this standard characterization of the non-protected status of data, and this testimony before Congress for broad discussion of copyright law as applied to databases. Data is not protected, databases are.

Copyright is not extinguished with bankruptcy, and probably should have been sold off with other assets. The owner of the company would not necessarily have owned the copyright, unless s/he created the database (if it is a database). It would be perfectly normal for the creator to be required to transfer copyright to the company, assuming that this was a work for hire. But then the copyright would be owned by the company, not the owner of the company.

Another possibility is that the data is protected by a non-disclosure agreement. Assuming you signed some such NDA which forbids you from in any way disclosing this data, I would then say that you really do need to ask an attorney how to deal with this situation. The essential question is who acquired the contract that you signed, and whether they will go after you for breach of the NDA. Providing a tool to use such data may be prohibited by the contract, and if it is that valuable, whoever assumed the contract could have a leg to stand on in preventing you from working on this project, even though others not covered by that NDA would be free to.

  • Thanks for the detailed info that definitely helps point me in the right direction. Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 21:10
  • I did sign an NDA but I was told that since the company went bankrupt that it was no longer in effect. The data that is in circulation is in the form of a spreadsheet. It was not stored in a database. I am not sure if it was ever copyrighted/patented as trade secrets or what not. Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 21:12

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