The team is joined by GuestKats Mirko Brüß, Rosie Burbidge, Nedim Malovic, Frantzeska Papadopolou, Mathilde Pavis, and Eibhlin Vardy
InternKats: Rose Hughes, Ieva Giedrimaite, and Cecilia Sbrolli
SpecialKats: Verónica Rodríguez Arguijo (TechieKat), Hayleigh Bosher (Book Review Editor), and Tian Lu (Asia Correspondent).

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Blockchain my IP

The notion of "blockchains"  seems to be all around us, including as part of discussions regarding both information technology  and  intellectual property rights (IPRs). After listening to a myriad of  different views and opinions, reading blog posts, articles (including by Guest Kat Rosie Burbidge, here)  and conference papers, one cannot fail to wonder: will blockchain  indeed revolutionise the IP world?

What is blockchain? 

The first questions have to be: What is  a "blockchain" and what are its main characteristics, benefits and weaknesses? In the language of cryptocurrency, a block is a record of new transactions (that could mean the location of cryptocurrency, medical data, or even voting records). Once a  block is completed, it is added to the chain, creating a chain of blocks: i.e.,  a blockchain. As such, blockchain is a way of organizing digital information. Although use in cryptocurrencies is its most well-known manifestation, the scope of its potential applications is much more extensive than that. What blockchain offers is a secure (and indisputable as to its traceability) chain of events. What you can see following a blockchain transaction is both the nature of the event as well as the exact order in which an event has occurred.  For example, you may see the value of bitcoins transferred and the date on which the transaction occurred.

Making changes in the blockchain records is very difficult since in order to manipulate a blockchain, you would have to such a large number of changes in the records that it would  be essentially impossible to do so. This also means that what is stored in blockchain is much more reliable than any data stored in decentralized databases. In fact, a transaction (or other information) stored in blockchain (a “ledger”), which has been accepted as “correct” may not be altered. This secured chain of transactions does not have to be available to the public; indeed, it could only be visible to holders of a special digital “key”.  As a result, some blockchains are closed, intended to be used only by certain pre-specified target groups,  while other blockchais are open.

The most well-known blockchain today, Bitcoin, is based on an entirely open database, to which anyone may add at any time. However, even in a blockchain that is open to the public, the real identity of the people behind the ledgers may not be revealed without access to their particular digital “key”. Furthermore, a public blockhain might also contain confidential information. As a result, you might be able to see the blockchain and even contribute to it, without however being able to gain access to the information that has been stored in previous ledgers.

Access to information stored in a ledger might not be granted, or be subject to first accepting pre-specified terms and conditions, such as  a  confidentiality agreement. Blockchain has the potential of providing for rather complex structures of storage and access. Taking into consideration that a blockchain database may also include search engines and key terms, the information stored is searchable by participants, should they choose to do so.

A blockchained IPKat

What may blockchain do for IP?

Against this backdrop,  this Kat wishes to venture the following guess: while it is  difficult to predict all potential IP-related applications of blockchain,  the  impact of blockchain will be most significantly felt in the field of management of IPRs. More specifically, blockchain could be used by inventors wishing to find potential investors, while at the same time safeguarding the novelty of their inventions. In this case, a ledger might consist of a short description of the character and goal of the invention, while those wishing to gain access to more information on how the invention works would then have to accept the provisions of an agreement (a so-called “smart contract”). This could even be the case for patent holders wishing to find potential licensees for related know-how and trade-secrets in addition to the patented invention. Alternatively, inventors might be interested in publishing their technological developments in order to guarantee their freedom to operate by destroying  novelty for others working in the same technological field.

The secure character of blockchain might also constitute a reliable source of prior art for patent offices worldwide. In this respect, even the requirements of the Nagoya Protocol (see here for the entire text of the Protocol) might be successfully fulfilled by means of  blockchain databases. In fact, it might be worthwhile for national governments to opt for blockchain databases, instead of having to invest in the establishment of costly Clearing House institutions.

Blockchain need not be limited to patents; it might also be used in the field of copyright-protected works. Publishing a song, text or other work, under a blockchain database may provide a solid proof of authorship or date of publication that can be used in court proceedings.  Furthermore, blockchain could provide a platform for the registration of copyright transfers  (not otherwise registered)  facilitating parties interested in entering into a licensing agreement, thereby significantly reducing transaction costs.

Based on the foregoing, a strong argument can be made  that blockchain technology will be able to facilitate the management of IPRs; as well, publications under a blockchain environment might be used as evidence in IP-related law proceedings. What more can it do for IP?  Let's wait and (presumably) see.

11 comments:

GenericIPguy said...

On a simpler level, IP in blockchain could be started with ownership management for TM and Patents etc., - making the process of right recordal easier and traceable.

Regards,
Sandeep K. Rathod

Anonymous said...

It is the nature of the wisdom of the crowd ("mob") that we get carried away with things without always thinking things through.

Blockchain requires repeated copies of the ledger to be held and processed on multiple (thousands) of computers and this distributed ledger "verifies" the transaction because it is so hard to change all these copies. This is redundancy in the extreme and provides the veracity and near incorruptibility. but at the same time this redundancy costs huge amounts of electricity, and minerals (in the hardware)and climate changing carbon to keep distinct multiple copies of the same thing. The entire ledger verifies that the ledger remains accurate when it is updated. A powerful tool indeed, but one that uses resources whilst not in fact producing anything physical. This use of resources is a regrettable waste that will do much to harm our Blue Marble. And we will slip into this because of the bandwagon that naturally follows the invention of a radical new thing.

Now what would be really clever, really really clever, is to develop such a distributed ledger (an eco-friendly Blockchain), that does not require us to use precious energy. And in the meantime, what would be wise in policy decision making is to limit ledger activities to only those powered by renewable energies (a more eco-friendly Blockchain).

Blockchain has the power to undo so much of the good work towards tackling climate change. And this is just the beginning.

Pseudononimouse

Anonymous said...

The problem with many blockchain considerations is that people mentally go the wrong way: they look at the tools (blockchain) and then try hard to find problems to apply them to. The smarter way is however to identify a problem and then look for a suitable tool to solve the problem. In my opinion, going the second route does not excactly make a strong case for blockchains in IP. There are simply no pressing problems in IP that would require blockchains to solve them.

THE US anon said...

To the man with a hammer, all the world looks like nails.

THE US anon said...

Sandeep,

Why is "recordable and traceable" being placed into such prominence?

Here in the States, the property of which a patent is, is deemed personal property.

Would you consent to having ALL of your personal property "recordable and traceable" across thousands of public ledgers?

"Easier" is not the panacea that it appears to be.

Big Brother - even a decentralized one - remains an affront to personal privacy, which includes personal property. If I want to tell the world what I have in my pockets, that is my business. Making a system that takes that choice away should not be considered so lightly.

Optimist said...

Anonymous of 11:06, I think there is a complex problem in patents awaiting solving. As we start to get more and more collaboration in R&D, with for example hospitals, universities and research companies working together we need a way of ascribing ownership information (and then assignment and licencing information) for bits of potentially patentable information (or perhaps just commercially useful technical information?).

See:

https://www.multichain.com/blog/2016/05/four-genuine-blockchain-use-cases/

for the 'tracking' uses of blockchain.

So I think blockchain offers the way that bits of 'owned' information is used and exchanged in collaborations, and that would ensure that the originators of the information were rewarded fairly. Blockchain would be used for all to collectively be able to see how the information moves between parties and to ascribe it a value.

To everyone who has been a bit negative in their comments, I don't disagree, but would point out how patent people have had beneficial impacts in the wider world (apart from in R&D). Firstly claim construction and interpretation has helped law in general by contributing to the development of interpretation, especially for example in helping to strengthen 'purposive construction' in other areas of law. Secondly the formation of the EPO was a pilot project in European cooperation that helped other European institutions to develop. It proved that Europe-wide institutions could work. I hope that once we adopt blockchain technology as our own we will contribute to it an a major way. We patent people are the hub of technology, money, and collaboration in a free market environment, and so are well placed to develop innovative uses for blockchain.

Anonymous said...

Agreed that that there is no pressing "need" across the board for blockchain in IP. But there are at least two areas (both mentioned in the article) where blockchain-based systems could provide a more convenient and elegant solution than anything currently available: on the one hand, recordal and controlled exchange of confidential material, and secondly, documentation requirements under the Nagoya Protocol. For those of us working at Unis the latter is our worst nightmare, and is having a huge deterrent effect on biodiversity research.

THE US anon said...

Optimist,

You are too optimistic if you think that the "ensure that the originators of the information were rewarded fairly" comment, as no "ensure" comes merely from traceability. That may help other efforts to "ensure," but does not - and cannot - take the place of those other efforts.

As to "everyone who has been a bit negative in their comments," certainly, where appropriate, additional innovative uses of blockchain technology (as with any technology) should be pursued. The "negativity" comes from inappropriate "everything is nails" viewpoints that either do not recognize, or improvidently dismiss, aspects of blockchain technology that "call for screws instead of nails," to turn the phrase.

Sam Bergstrom said...

We've already past the purely theoretical. There's a block-chain enabled patent register: https://ipwe.com/

Anonymous said...

ipwe.com is headed by Erich Spanenberg, and with his history I'm not sure I trust his motives.

Anonymous said...

Here's a European IP blockchain startup (with WIPO support):
https://www.ipchaindatabase.com/

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