More and more companies who offer blockchain and other next generation cybersecurity technologies are seeking patents to help protect their competitive position. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO’s) Technology Center 2400, which covers networking, multiplexing, cable and security technologies, includes over 200 Patent Examiners who focus on security technologies. TC 2400 issued over 33,000 patents in 2017. During this period, the USPTO’s overall allowance rate was 59.4%.
Despite this apparent boom, patent applications covering cybersecurity technologies have faced increasing scrutiny since the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l. In Alice, the Court found that a software implementation of an escrow arrangement was not eligible for patenting in the U.S. because it merely involved implementing an “abstract idea” on a computer. The Court did not define the term “abstract idea” other than to describe it as a building block of human ingenuity, or a fundamental concept, including concepts that involve a “fundamental economic practice.”
Since then, the USPTO has issued several guidance documents, and lower courts have issued several opinions, describing when software is and (more often) is not eligible for patenting under Section 101 of the Patent Act. The USPTO typically denies, and courts often strike down, patent applications and patents covering methods of manipulating data, completing financial transactions, and algorithms that do not require any particular hardware other than a general-purpose computer.
Patent applications that focus on financial applications of blockchain technologies often face patent-eligibility hurdles. A search of the USPTO’s Patent Application Information Retrieval (PIR) system indicated that as of January 2018, over 90% of the published applications and issued patents having the term “blockchain” and any combination of “cryptocurrency,” “coin,” or “currency” in the claims were assigned to the USPTO’s Technology Center 3600. (TC 3600 includes the USPTO’s business methods examining unit.) Over 80% of these patents and patents applications received a Section 101 rejection on first action. In addition, the allowance rate in TC 3600 remains far below that of the USPTO’s overall statistics.
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