New technology brings exciting opportunities for early innovators, and potentially disastrous disruptions to the status quo. Blockchain, a growing, publicly-distributed ledger of transaction data and cryptographic hashes that famously enables cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin and Ripple, may be one such technology.
Much like the California Gold Rush of 1850s, the enticing opportunity of blockchain's potential to revolutionize global financial (and many other) markets through transaction security has brought a wave of prospectors to stake their claim on the blockchain patent landscape. However, in just the same way naïve travelers uprooted their lives to find barren mines, inadequate tools, and congested marketplaces, many blockchain late comers may find their efforts too little, too late. The winners in the race for blockchain patents will strike early and strategically.
Look no further than the filing activity for blockchain patents over the last decade (shown below). Before 2013, there were virtually no patents with the word 'blockchain' appearing in their claims, titles, or abstracts. Today, there are over 1800 such filings, nearly 1700 of which are currently ungranted applications. These rock-bottom grant rates typify a highly speculative, impulsive race to the patent office, with little concern for the claim language that will survive prosecution in this arena.
Number of Blockchain-related patents and applications 2009 - 20181
Many blockchain purists are short-sighted about the scope of the technology, believing blockchain's only efficacious applications are in financial transactions, and even then, only open-source solutions will gain wide adoptions. Still more digital charlatans have marketed blockchain (and especially its related cryptocurrencies) as a panacea for all data woes. The truth is likely somewhere in between, causing many innovators to ask the same questions they asked more than two decades ago while the dotcom era began. These may be the same questions you are currently asking yourself, questions such has "How is this new technology going to change my industry, and how can I maximize my return on investment in it?"
As an IP consultancy, we've had the unique opportunity of learning about the opportunities and pain points from both creators and buyers of emerging blockchain innovations. One reoccurring trend we've come to understand is that any offering implementing 'blockchain for blockchain's sake' should be met with healthy skepticism. On the other hand, employing a blockchain approach at locations in the value chain where security, privacy, speed, and low cost are vital to success may pay dividends. Though the bitcoin bubble may have burst, the most exciting opportunities in blockchain are still being revealed. But it will take keen analysis to distinguish truly valuable inventions from the growing stockpile of blockchain fool's gold.