Defensive Patent Strategies for Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies

Many companies who offer next generation cybersecurity technologies are experiencing significant growth in both corporate share value and revenue. To help protect against competition, many companies are seeking patents to cover their blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies, security awareness training systems, and innovative real-time data analytics methods.

As of January 2018, United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) records revealed just over fifty granted patents in which the phrase “blockchain” or “distributed ledger” appeared. Twenty-five of these patents included those terms in the title, abstract or claims. Some of the patents were awarded to cryptocurrency startups that launched or are about to launch initial currency offerings (ICOs). Others were awarded to U.S. software and business services industry titans who already have large patent portfolios. Approximately one-third of those patents were awarded to businesses that appear – at least for now – to be non-practicing entities, which could signal a risk of patent litigation on the near horizon.

A strategically developed patent portfolio can have several benefits. In addition to increasing corporate value and providing a weapon against infringement, patents can serve as a defensive mechanism against high-stakes patent litigation. A competitor who holds patents may hesitate before filing a patent infringement suit against a company that owns a strong patent portfolio that it can assert in a counterclaim. Strong patent portfolios also can provide companies with the opportunity for favorable cross-licensing arrangements, with fewer royalties being paid and potentially more royalties coming in.

Patent applicants must consider how to draft effective patent applications. Tips for doing this include:

  • Distributed ledger technologies typically require actions by multiple entities. However, it can be difficult to establish infringement of a patent claim unless all elements of the claim are used or performed by a single entity. Patent applications should draft claims with a single infringer in mind, rather than to a distributed system.
  • The U.S. and many other countries around the world take a negative view of software patents that cover mere “abstract ideas” rather than innovations in technology. A new business application of an existing blockchain technology is unlikely to be patentable. Instead, patent applications should cover innovations that provide a technical solution to a technical problem.

Patent strategies for distributed ledger technologies also need to consider the tension between the limited monopoly that a patent provides and the open source platform that a distributed ledger necessarily requires.

For the last few years, several companies have openly discussed and favored the idea of a blockchain “patent pool” in which stakeholders share access to each others’ blockchain-related patents. The Blockchain Patent Sharing Alliance (BPSA) is one such entity that is trying to gather a critical mass of stakeholders and companies. In addition, in 2016, the Linux Foundation formed the Hyperledger Project, which seeks to create an open-source framework for distributed ledger technologies.

Some stakeholders are taking matters into their own hands. In 2016 blockchain developer Blockstream publicly pledged that it will never use its blockchain patents as a weapon. Instead, Blockstream pledged that all of its blockchain software patents are available under the terms of a defensive patent license. Under that license, Blockstream will only use its patents for “defensive purposes” against a party who brings or threatens a patent infringement claim against Blockstream or against a user of Blockstream’s technologies.

Third in a four-part series. For other posts in this four-part series, see:
Intellectual Property Strategies For Next Generation Cybersecurity Technologies
Trends in Patenting Blockchain Technologies
Cybersecurity Patent Strategies vs. the Growing Barriers to Software Patents 

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