What Is a Non Tangible Item?

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A non-tangible item, also known as an intangible item, refers to goods or assets that do not have a physical presence and cannot be touched or seen. These items are typically conceptual or intellectual in nature and hold value based on their intangible qualities. But what exactly constitutes a non-tangible item? And what are some common examples? This article will provide an in-depth look at non-tangible items to help shed light on this abstract concept.

Defining Non-Tangible Items

To understand non-tangible items, it helps to first consider what makes something tangible. Tangible items are physical objects that can be touched or held in your hand. Some examples include a book, piece of furniture, car, or clothing item. These physical items obviously occupy space, have mass, and can be physically interacted with.

In contrast, non-tangible items do not have a concrete physical form. They are abstract ideas or intellectual properties that nonetheless have value. Since you cannot hold a non-tangible item in your hand or easily measure its physical attributes, its value is based more on the rights, benefits, or advantages it provides.

Some key characteristics of non-tangible items:

  • They lack a defined physical form, mass, or volume
  • Cannot be touched or held directly
  • Derive value from intellectual content or rights
  • Have value based on perceived benefits they provide
  • Can be digitally created, licensed, or exchanged

Simply stated, if you cannot physically hold, see, or touch an item, it qualifies as non-tangible. The value stems from the intangible qualities rather than any concrete physical attributes.

Why Are Non-Tangible Items Valuable?

Given their lack of physicality, you may wonder why non-tangible items can be so valuable. Consider a piece of software, for example. The software itself has no tangible presence – it is simply code and digital information. But that code grants valuable capabilities that users are willing to pay for. Some key factors driving the value of non-tangible items include:

  • Scarcity – Limited supply or exclusive access increases perceived value. Digital files can be copied, but limited licensing creates scarcity.
  • Utility – How useful or beneficial the non-tangible item is determines its demand. Unique functionality and capabilities increase utility.
  • Reputation – The brand, intellectual rights, or other intangibles associated with an item signal quality or prestige.
  • Development costs – Substantial investment is required to create and develop intellectual property and digital assets. The associated costs impact value.
  • Competitive advantage – Owning exclusive rights to strategic intangible assets like patents or software can provide an edge over rivals.

In summary, non-tangible items derive their value from the exclusive benefits and advantages they provide rather than any physical attributes. As long as consumers and businesses value those benefits, they are willing to pay to access or own non-tangible items.

Types of Non-Tangible Items

Many different types of assets and properties fall under the umbrella of non-tangible items. Though the list could be extensive, here are some major categories and common examples:

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, and symbols. Key forms of intellectual property include:

  • Patents – Provide exclusive rights to an invention or discovery for a limited time. Patents protect the commercial value of inventions.
  • Copyrights – Protect original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works like books, movies, songs, and artwork. The creator holds exclusive rights.
  • Trademarks – Protect words, phrases, symbols, designs or a combination of these that identifies and distinguishes a company or product. Trademarks represent brand identity and reputation.
  • Trade secrets – Confidential information like customer lists, manufacturing processes, or special algorithms kept secret to maintain an advantage over competitors.

Owning intellectual property provides the right to use, benefit from, and control access to intangible assets like inventions, creative works, identities, or confidential information. These rights can be incredibly valuable.

Contractual Rights

Contracts grant specific rights or privileges outlined in legal agreements between parties. These rights have value based on the benefits they provide, such as:

  • Licenses – Legal contracts granting permission to use protected content or technology in certain approved ways. Software, media, and other licenses provide access to valuable intellectual property.
  • Leases – Provide the right to temporarily use property owned by another party in exchange for payments. The right to occupy or use an asset has intangible value.
  • Mineral rights – Grant rights to resources like oil, gas, minerals or water located beneath the surface of a property. The rights have value separate from the physical land.
  • Easements – Provide specific rights to use or access property owned by others such as for utilities, access roads, pipelines, etc. The rights have value even though the property itself is not owned.

Digital Assets

Digital assets exist in electronic or digital form online, in databases, or other digital storage mediums. Though intangible, they hold value and can be bought, sold, or licensed like any other asset. Examples include:

  • Domain names – Ownership rights to use specific website URLs based on registration. Valuable domain names can be sold or rented out.
  • Software – Computer programs, code, and applications that provide functionality or other digital capabilities.
  • Digital media – Downloadable or streaming content like eBooks, music, movies, and online courses have value and can be sold or rented digitally.
  • Cryptocurrency – Digital currencies like Bitcoin that only exist electronically but have exchange value. Backed by blockchain rather than physical assets.
  • Social media accounts – Popular social media accounts with large followings can drive major influence and engagement. This provides intangible value even if sold separately from any physical assets owned.

Financial Assets

Certain financial assets and instruments do not have a tangible form and derive value from contracts or perceived usefulness:

  • Stocks – Represent ownership in a company via shares. Have value based on expected future profits and assets owned by the company.
  • Bonds – A debt instrument where an investor loans money to a company or government. Value is based on expected future interest payments and return of principal.
  • Derivatives – Contracts like options that derive value from an underlying asset. Allow parties to hedge risks.
  • Goodwill – An intangible asset representing the reputation and brand power of a business used to help estimate its value.

Key Roles and Applications

Now that we have covered numerous examples, what are some of the key applications and roles non-tangible items play in business and commerce?

  • Driving value for tech and digital media companies – Patents, proprietary software, user data, and digital rights make up much of the value for many tech firms and online platforms. These intangible assets fuel competitive advantages.
  • Enabling licensing-based business models – Software, franchises, entertainment companies and more rely heavily on monetizing intellectual property rights via recurring licensing fees rather than physical sales.
  • Protecting intellectual property – Copyright and patents prevent unauthorized use while trademarks protect brand reputation. This provides incentives for continued innovation and creativity.
  • Facilitating online transactions – Cryptocurrency, digital contracts, and other electronic records enable low-friction digital transactions without physical documents.
  • Creating financial assets – Stocks, bonds and other financial instruments increase available capital by converting expected future value into tradeable assets today.
  • Accounting for brand power – Calculations of goodwill and brand value indicate success in building an intangible asset: corporate reputation, culture and customer loyalty.

In summary, non-tangible items now play a central role in the global digital economy and intellectual property-driven businesses. They present opportunities to develop valuable assets without investing in physical materials or manufacturing.

Challenges Related to Non-Tangible Items

However useful, relying heavily on non-tangible assets also comes with some notable drawbacks and challenges:

  • Valuation difficulties – With no physical attributes to assess, precisely quantifying the value of intangible assets can be challenging. Brand valuations in particular depend on qualitative factors and estimates.
  • Easier to replicate – Lacking physical scarcity, digital assets can be copied. Competitors may reverse engineer or replicate patented inventions or software. Copyright piracy also persists.
  • Tax optimization controversies – Companies with lots of IP licensing and intangible assets can more easily shift profits to low tax jurisdictions, creating tax avoidance concerns.
  • Less collateral for financing – Intangible assets rarely have resale value or provide collateral for investors. This can limit financing options and increase cost of capital for IP-focused businesses.
  • Legal uncertainties – Rapidly evolving technology, business models and digital rights present challenges creating clear regulations and case law around intangible asset ownership and use.

Over reliance on intangibles or abuse of intellectual property rules carries risks. But with proper strategy and management of intangible assets, companies can thrive in digital marketplaces built on innovation and ideas.

Looking Ahead

While definitions remain fluid, categories of non-tangible assets will likely continue expanding as technology, business and intellectual property evolve. Some emerging areas include:

  • Data rights – As data becomes a more valuable asset, questions around ownership and portability of user data may spur new property rights frameworks.
  • AI-generated content – Creative works like art and media generated by AI algorithms create ambiguity around copyright and ownership.
  • Digital identities – Online reputations, influence and privacy have value, potentially spurring growth in identity rights management systems with Blockchain or other encryption technologies.
  • Human capital – Skills, talent, and employee knowledge make up increasing portions of company value. Better systems to quantify and account for human capital may emerge.

The boundaries between tangible and intangible continue to blur in the digital economy. While the nature of property shifts, effectively understanding, managing and protecting intellectual property rights and other intangible assets will only grow in importance.


Intangible items lack physical substance but provide value through the rights, competitive advantages, or prestige they confer. Patents, software, licenses, cryptocurrency, copyrights, and financial instruments exemplify some major categories. These non-physical assets now comprise much of the value created and exchanged globally. Still, properly valuing intangibles while navigating legal uncertainties around emerging digital rights remains vitally important. As technology progresses, even more value may concentrate in new forms of intangible property and digital assets. But despite their abstraction, non-tangible items will continue driving innovation and opportunity well into the future.

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