The difference between assignment and transfer is that assign means it's legal to transfer property or a legal right from one person to another, while transfer means it's legal to arrange for something to be controlled by or officially belong to another person.

When used as verbs, assign means to set apart or designate something for a purpose while transfer means to pass or move from one person, place, or thing to someone or someplace else. When used as nouns, assign means the assignee and transfer is the act of removing or conveying something from one person, thing, or place to another. Transfer generally refers to titles whereas assignment is used with obligations and rights.

Definitions of Assignment and Transfer

  • Assignment: Assignment is used in real estate law and contracts law. It covers the transfer of rights held by the assignor to the assignee.
  • Transfer: To remove or convey from one person or place to someone or somewhere else.

Distinction Between Assignment and Transfer

When distinguishing between assignment and transfer, take licenses, for example. Licenses are contracts that don't allow legal action for infringement. They fall under state law. Therefore, state law will decide whether the license is an obligation or right that can be transferred or assigned legally.

One way to distinguish this example is that an individual contract under an agreement cannot be assigned, like entitlement to grant back royalties. In addition, the contract cannot be transferred. You need to break it down and figure out what the actual issue is — the parties' intent. An additional distinction is when the contract holder is an entity and the business owners want to transfer a portion or all of their stock. This can be seen as an implied transfer of the whole contract. However, it would not likely be an assignment of the rights covered under this agreement.

Difference Between Assign and License

The key difference between assign and license is that with a license, the person who grants permission, known as the licensor, keeps an interest in the product being licensed. In an assignment, the assignor will transfer his or her rights to the product or property being assigned.

Another difference is that assignments must be in writing and a license can be executed without being written. Consider, for example, intellectual property such as patents. Patents can be licensed verbally in some instances, but assignments for patents must be in writing and filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Assignments grant the assignee full ownership of a product or property. Therefore, an assignment will typically cost more to acquire than a license.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there ever situations in which a license can be transferred but is not assignable?

  • Yes, in the case of allowing an assignment to one of your affiliates, the assignor would still be liable for the performance of the agreement under general assignment law. In this situation, you would not typically permit a transfer, because in a transfer, the person transferring would not maintain any obligations related to performance. Don't rely solely on this general understanding, but still expressly detail your agreement on what a licensee can legally do.

How will transfer and assignment rights affect someone's ability to sublicense?

  • In theory, if a licensee has the authority to assign license rights to someone else, you could argue that it also provides the right to sublicense it. The issue here is that with a sublicense, the person sublicensing it keeps a license right, therefore effectively creating two licensees. With an assignment, only one right is assigned, and the assignee is the one who has possession of the license. With well-drafted licenses, the right to sublicense is not typically implied, as the licensor is the one who reserves all rights that are not expressly granted.

What is the effect of poorly drafted licenses?

  • A poorly drafted license could result in giving someone implied rights to also sublicense. An example is a software license that allows a licensee to access the software without clarifying any restrictions or clearly defining the word “use.” This means that, depending on what this software is supposed to do, someone could think the term “use” means the licensee has permission to grant a sublicense as part of their usage rights.

If you need help understanding the difference between assignment and transfer, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel only accepts the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.