Contractual-legal criterion (intangible assets)

Definition: Intangible assets are non-physical assets that generate value for an entity, such as patents, copyrights, trademarks, and goodwill. For an intangible asset to be recognized separately from goodwill in financial statements, it must meet certain criteria. One of these criteria is the contractual-legal criterion, which stipulates that an intangible asset is identifiable if it either:

  1. Arises from contractual or legal rights.
  2. Is separable (can be separated and sold, transferred, licensed, rented, or exchanged) from the entity.

This criterion helps entities determine whether an intangible asset can be separately recognized on the balance sheet or if it should be subsumed within goodwill.

Importance of the Contractual-Legal Criterion:

  1. Asset Recognition: It provides a clear framework for recognizing intangible assets separately from goodwill, ensuring more accurate financial reporting.
  2. Valuation: Contractual or legal rights might have a known value or duration, aiding in the precise valuation of the intangible asset.
  3. Asset Management: Understanding which assets are legally protected or have contractual rights helps companies manage, protect, and leverage those assets more effectively.

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Examples of Assets Meeting the Contractual-Legal Criterion:

  1. Patents: A patent gives its holder exclusive rights to produce, sell, or use a particular invention for a certain period. This legal protection meets the contractual-legal criterion, making patents identifiable intangible assets.
  2. Copyrights: Copyrights grant exclusive rights to the creator of original works (like music, books, or movies) to reproduce, distribute, and display their creations. These rights qualify copyrights as intangible assets under the contractual-legal criterion.
  3. Trademarks: A trademark is a symbol, word, or phrase legally registered to represent a company or product. Since trademarks arise from legal rights, they meet the criterion.

Consideration in Applying the Criterion:

While the contractual-legal criterion provides clarity, some nuances need to be considered:

  1. Duration: Just because an asset has a legal right doesn't mean it's indefinite. Patents expire, and trademarks need renewing. The duration of these rights impacts the asset's recognition and valuation.
  2. Enforceability: Not all legal rights are enforceable in all jurisdictions. Companies need to consider the practicality and cost of enforcing their rights when recognizing and valuing intangible assets.
  3. Non-transferability: Even if an intangible asset isn't transferable, as long as it arises from legal or contractual rights, it can still meet the contractual-legal criterion.


The contractual-legal criterion provides essential guidance in the complex world of intangible asset recognition. By understanding which intangible assets arise from contractual or legal rights, businesses can ensure accurate and transparent financial reporting. Additionally, this understanding can inform strategic decisions around asset management, protection, and monetization. In today's knowledge-driven economy, where intangible assets often represent a significant portion of a company's value, grasping concepts like the contractual-legal criterion becomes increasingly critical.

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