Value of Patents and the Endowment Effect

As research has shown, owners have an incentive to exaggerate the value of their property. This is true for all kind of property but is it also true for intellectual property? People are reluctant to part with their property, and the amount that they are willing to accept to sell it generally far exceeds the amount that others are willing to pay for it. This gap has been termed the “endowment effect”[1] and it has been detected for a number variety of forms of property. In investing this effect leads to an inherent tendency for an investor not to sell an investment as one values his own investments well above the current market prices, which in turn affects decision making to sell.

The endowment effect is not limited to objects which can be bought or sold. It can be seen at work elsewhere, particularly in politics and science. People with careers in these fields invest a lot of time, effort and personal capital into a particular theory or ideology and needless to say some of them react extremely poorly when presented with evidence that clearly contradicts their beliefs. In behavioral research it is shown in one experiment that people demanded a higher price for a coffee mug that had been given to them but put a lower price on one they did not yet own. Another study found that people demanded on average $143 to sell a hunting permit that they owned, yet they would only be willing to pay $31 to acquire that same hunting permit[2]

A study[3] explores the existence of an endowment effect for property that, like intellectual property, (1) was actually created by the owners and (2) is non-rival (i.e., a good where consumption by one person does not prevent consumption by another, e.g. an intellectual property license). The study finds a substantial valuation asymmetry between creators and purchasers of IP with creators valuing their work more than twice as high as potential buyers do. Importantly, the research was unable to diminish the asymmetry either by using transaction intermediaries or providing additional market information.

To study the existence of an endowment effect, authors assume that the value of any particular, individual IP right, then, is simply “the probabilistic value of the rents that can be obtained from holding the right to a given work”. They demonstrate this by an example. Imagine the following situation: A publishing house can estimate with reasonable certainty that there is a market for novels worth $100 million in profits. The publisher would like to capture some of that money, and it is considering purchasing the rights for one of two different novels. Novel 1 is quite good, and the publisher believes that it has a 60% chance of successfully capturing the market. Novel 2 is less good, and the publisher believes it has only a 10% chance of capturing the market. Accordingly, a rational publisher would be willing to pay anything less than $60 million for the rights to Novel 1 or anything less than $10 million for the rights on Novel 2. The value of each novel to the publisher (or to the author) is just the value of the total rents multiplied by its chance of returning them to the rights holder.

The experiment created a quality-based contest resulting in a payout of known value. All participants in the experiment were divided into three groups based on their order of recruitment: the first third became “Authors”, the middle third “Bidders”, and the final third “Owners”. Authors and Owners were not alienating the entire poem but instead only their chance to win a prize in keeping with the non-rival nature of IP licenses and transfers. The experiments resulted in a substantial valuation asymmetries between poem Authors and Buyers. Authors generally request more than twice the amount to sell their poems than Buyers are willing to pay for them. This suggests the existence of a considerable endowment effect for intellectual property.

Interestingly authors have also included psychological effects underlying the experiment results, like what is called “regret aversion”, a phenomenon we often see in selling strategies of IP (e.g. the lack of an active selling of non-used trademarks or brands, where this effect (namely that the owner does not sell because he does not want to regret the sale once the buyer makes a successful (re)start of the brand). To read the full article the details of the experiment and the study findings, click here.


[1] Some economist describe the endowment effect as inconsistent with standard economic theory which asserts that a person’s willingness to pay (“WTP”) for a good should be equal to their willingness to accept (“WTA”)  compensation to be deprived of the good.

[2] Ziv Carmon & Dan Ariely, Focusing on the Forgone: How Value Can Appear So Different to Buyers and Sellers, 27 J. Consumer Res. 360, 360 (2000).

[3] C.J. Buccafusco, C.J. Sprigman, Valuing Intellectual Property: An Experiment, University of Virginia School of Law (March 2010)

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