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Blockchain + X = Patent? A New Math

by: Chris Mulkey, COO & Head of Research

There’s a mad scramble to grab any and all intellectual property in the blockchain space. While undoubtedly there are some legitimate innovations, there seems to be a plethora of useless claim language being published that makes me pause and ask whether some applicants really understand what the blockchain concept is really about.

The theory behind the blockchain is arguably contrary to patent rights. By its very nature, the blockchain rejects centralized control (originally for currency, but application-irrelevant), and this might logically extend to the limited monopoly afforded by a patent. By placing the task of verification/legitimacy in the hands of the “crowd”, the blockchain concept evades falsification of a digital ledger by utilizing an increasing number of unrelated users’ records, which must be corroborated by every other unrelated users’ records. The more users who adopt and maintain the ledger, the more impossible it becomes to falsify.

Historically, the inconsistency of a datum maintained in multiple locations would increase with an increase in the number of locations storing said datum. The brilliance of the blockchain is that it reverses this paradigm, utilizing inconsistencies as a MEANS to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate. The temporary monopoly of patent rights could easily undermine this efficacy altogether.

Despite the argument that singular ownership of anything blockchain-related is anathema to the concept of the blockchain itself, innovation invariably will find a way to maximize its utility in ways the inventors never contemplated (Note: the origin of the blockchain concept is still a subject of debate, and to this day, no one has explicitly taken credit). However, a variety of attempts to stake a slice of the concept have been almost comical in breadth. My hope is that patent offices around the world see through the veil and reject, reject, reject.

To legitimize my position, I must obviously provide an example. Sorry, IBM. I’m going to pick on you because, well, you’re IBM.

Below is claim 1 of recent published IBM application, US20180270244, with my snide comments detailing the well-known aspects and what might, broadly interpreted, constitute an innovative step (spoiler – it’s not there):

“A method, comprising: maintaining a secure chain of data blocks at a given computing node [in essence, a hard drive], wherein the given computing node is part of a set of computing nodes in a distributed network [a network] of computing nodes wherein each of the set of computing nodes maintains the secure chain of data blocks [distributed network storing a standard blockchain ledger], wherein the secure chain of data blocks maintained at each computing node comprises one or more data blocks that respectively represent one or more transactions [transactions are at the heart of standard blockchain tech] associated with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) [a drone]; adding at least one data block to the secure chain of data blocks maintained at the given computing node [any user] in response to determining that transaction data associated with the at least one data block is valid [standard blockchain verification]; wherein the maintaining and adding steps are implemented via at least one processor [a computer] operatively coupled to a memory [a computer] associated with the given computing node [yes, this is still how normal computers work]” (emphasis added).

What kind of strange math is being attempted here? The blockchain aspect of the scope of this claim 1 is EXACTLY the original concept of blockchain, and NOTHING MORE. Adding a drone into the equation doesn’t exactly inch us toward technological enlightenment.

IBM is far from alone in this endeavor, though; and for anyone else wanting to jump on the bandwagon and beef up their portfolio, here’s the hot equation:

            ANYTHING + Blockchain = PATENT!!!

C’mon y’all (as my Austin colleagues would say). If one does manage to squeak similar claims past an Examiner, said claims won’t be worth much if tested. There must be so many incredible ways to harness the power of the blockchain, and some of these might be patent-worthy. But let’s brainstorm a bit before we waste resources drafting the banal.