The Current State of Blockchain Patents

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When you file for a patent you need to choose which class your patent belongs to. But, what if I told you that patent classes were initially defined in the 19th century when gears were the next big thing? Yes, right at the start of the industrial age. Since then, classes haven’t been completely changed or overhauled, the only thing that has happened is that new classes were added as necessary. That’s the reason why nanotechnology is in a single class.

For example, Artificial Intelligence. The WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) has tried to classify patents that use Artificial Intelligence by gathering various classifications together on one webpage for “tech trends.” If you check out the page for AI technology you’ll notice that there are quite a few different classes that have to be considered for AI – and these classes also include non-AI inventions. Furthermore, the WIPO includes a few different classification systems, making it harder to understand how the classes work in the first place.

And, if we’re talking about the USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office), you’ll find that Class 706 is an important class for AI. However, this is a general data processing class. Image analysis is found in a different class. This means that you can’t just look up one patent class and expect to find everything related to AI or other types of software – and even within one class, many different kinds of software inventions are mixed together.

Enter blockchain.

Blockchain is an important, foundation technology for decentralized, trustless interactions. It’s not only being used for cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, but is now used for all kinds of applications – insurance, healthcare, logistics and many more. Knowing the number of blockchain patents – and just as importantly, which companies own them – is really important for future strategic decisions. It’s the only way to know what patent investments your competitors are making.

Unfortunately, with all of the confusion over classes, there isn’t a simple way to know which class is which. And even if it was possible to sort out all of the different classes, there are further potential sources of confusion. This is reflected in the numbers that different sources publish about how many blockchain patents exist: they are all different.

In an effort to solve this problem, we embarked into our own research to answer:

  1. Number of blockchain patent applications published by end of 2019 or to date
  2. Number of blockchain patents issued by end of 2019 or to date

Now, if you’ve been following our line of thought, these are difficult to answer accurately. And this is just the beginning of the questions that need to be answered, to start sorting out the confusion.

Patent applications filed vs published

Patent applications only publish 18 months after their earliest priority date. That’s why the number of patent applications filed can only be known after this time has elapsed. Basically, a lot more blockchain patents have been filed than what the numbers show, but the current total is impossible to know.

What is a blockchain patent

Blockchain has different definitions depending on who’s saying it and that affects how they search for them.

Blockchain patents vs blockchain families

When a patent application is filed in multiple countries, some reports count each patent in each country separately, so a patent filed in the US, Europe, and China would be counted as 3 patents. Others count each patent family, in which case this patent would be counted as only 1 patent. 

The databases used

Our searches – and those that others performed – use the Inpadoc and WIPO databases. They may have different indexing for searches or even different documents included.

Checking at different points in time

This can make a huge difference. For example, most of Alibaba’s granted patents were only granted in the past 3 months, according to our search – so earlier searches could have easily undercounted the number of granted patents. Alibaba has a huge pipeline of patent applications, so expect to see many more granted patents from them in the near future.

Quick facts

What we see to date, using the NextWeb search, is that granted patents are accelerating in the blockchain space. The number of granted patents more than doubled in China between March 2019 and the date that search was run (February 19, 2020), in less than a year! This number has almost doubled in China since the end of June 2019, less than 7 months ago.

We aren’t seeing the same type of acceleration in the US. Comparing the total number of granted patents as of March 2019 in comparison to date shows that the number of US patents as of the end of March 2019 is two thirds the total number to date.

In conclusion

It’s important for innovators to know these numbers because they will tell them what their competitors all over the world are up to! If you want to make sure you can safely grow in your own country, or expand to other markets, you have to be sure you can do it.

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