Much has been written and discussed about how blockchain technology would bring about fundamental changes to the financial industry which could actually threaten the very existence of banks as intermediary trust centers. At the latest after the major central banks met about a year ago in Washington at a three-day event, hosted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the US Federal Reserve, to discuss blockchain and crypto currencies, it probably dawned on a wider public that the hype around blockchain must be more than just that. 

In a recent in-depth analysis report, the European Parliamentary Research Service investigated how blockchain technology could change our lives. Indeed, blockchain has potential for application way beyond Fintech - so the current hype may actually be understated.

Blockchain for Patents

While the Internet provides a global network for sharing and communicating information, blockchain will use this network for managing and transferring value and assets in a distributed trust system. The European Parliament's in-house research department and think tank identified digital contents and rights management, the electoral system, supply chains, and smart contracts as fields of blockchain applications beyond the current crypto currency developments. What is of interest here is that, aside from its potential impact on public services in general, the report pointed out that blockchain could help the patent system. While it has been suggested that blockchain could substitute or even abolish the patent system, the report acknowledged that blockchain makes it possible for an innovator to record content, such as a description of an invention, and to proof later the time of recording and the content recorded, without having to reveal the content in the meantime. The report agreed that blockchain could reduce inefficiencies in the registration process across several national patent systems, but found that blockchain did not lend itself to promoting innovation, as it does not provide for publication and cannot assess novelty and other patentability requirements, as patent examiners do. Nevertheless, as the number of patent applications continues to increase, so will the demand for a more efficient patent system. In a system where novelty and inventive step of patent applications are examined only per request and as needed, blockchain could very well be the basis for a global registration system for innovation. The addition of an automatic and verifiable content publishing system and an automatic payment system for filing and annuity fees would be relatively straightforward. At least from a technical perspective, blockchain must be considered an efficient alternative or addition to the present patent system.

Patents for Blockchain

The application of blockchain is and will not be limited to the financial and legal sectors. With the advent of Internet of Things and cloud-based data processing and their propagation to virtually all kinds of technologies and industries comes a need for logging and registering events and values with critical requirements of reliability, security, and verifiability, qualities which are inherent to blockchain. The application of blockchain in technical fields will spur innovation and with it patent applications. The current numbers of published patent applications related to blockchain are still low, worldwide in the range of about two hundred patent families, primarily from the financial sector. Although there is a blind spot of a year and a half, because patent applications are published as late as eighteen months after their filing, it is evident that the numbers are growing rapidly. In just the last three months, the number of published US patent applications increased from 123 to 225. Worldwide, this rapid growth is indicated by an increase of patent families from 175 to 250, with published patent applications growing from 284 to 425 in the same short period. This tremendous activity is further evidenced by the appearance of new applicants, with top ranking numbers of applications, and a broadening of relevant fields from finances to information and communications technology.

But can blockchain related innovations be patented and is it worth it? In general, at the onset of new technological fields, the claims can be staked broader than in mature fields, where innovation is typically directed to small improvements. So yes, in that sense it could very well be worth it.

But what can be patented? In essence, blockchain related innovations are software inventions and the same rules apply, i.e. the same laws and case law, as for any other computer-implemented inventions. The European Patent Office, for example, requires that a claimed invention provide a solution to a technical problem in order to be patentable. According to the case law in the United States, a claimed invention is only eligible to a patent, if it is directed to significantly more than an abstract idea. Provided it is new and non-obvious, a specific technical application of blockchain will be amenable to patent protection in most jurisdictions.

We are pleased to publish our first guest blogpost, by Dany Vogel, Swiss and European Patent Attorney at RENTSCH PARTNER AG.

The cooperation between FRORIEP and RENTSCH PARTNER stands for agility, innovation and an interdisciplinary powerhouse in the field of technology and commercial law.

Originally published on 12 September 2017

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