Blockchain is a decentralized database, often referred to as a distributed ledger where transactions are confirmed and recorded. The system is sturdy and secure, as information cannot be altered once it is entered into the ledger. By checking the blockchain and confirming transactions, the entire system is effectively self-regulated and immune from manipulation.
While you may have heard about blockchain technology in the context of bitcoins, the potential application of the technology extends far beyond the world of cryptocurrency, into the fields of finance, healthcare, entertainment, government and even intellectual property registration, enforcement and licensing.
Recently, Facebook announced that it is forming a new team led by high-profile executives dedicated exclusively to blockchain technology. Exactly how Facebook plans to use the emerging technology has been left largely to speculation, with some experts suggesting that it could be used to secure user data or combat the problem of fake news. In April, U.S. healthcare giant United Health Group announced a partnership with rival health insurer Humana and lab test company Quest Diagnostics in a blockchain technology pilot project. The companies will explore sharing health care data using blockchain technology with the goal of improving data accuracy, streamlining administration and expanding access to care.
Given the growing realization of the untapped potential to use blockchain technology across multiple industries, it is no surprise that innovation and commercialization in this space is exploding. And with most innovation and commercial breakthroughs comes a proliferation of intellectual property filings.
Recent patent filings
A review of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records shows a tremendous surge of recent patent filings for inventions related to blockchain technology.
By all accounts, blockchain technology was invented in 2008 and made its public debut as the subject of a white-paper published by Satoshi Nakamoto entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.” Since 2008, there have been just over 1,100 published U.S. applications and 144 issued U.S. patents that include the keyword “blockchain.” Given the growing number of companies innovating in this space and the seemingly endless potential applications, we expect to see the number of filings continue to grow at a rapid pace.
Of the blockchain-related U.S. patent applications filed to date, some of the notable players include Microsoft, Qualcomm, Accenture, SAP, Mastercard, Sony, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development and Bank of America. However, there are plenty of companies outside of the finance and electronics industries trying to get a piece of the blockchain pie — including shipping giant United Parcel Service of America, Inc. (UPS). Earlier this month, the U.S Patent and Trademark Office published U.S. Patent Application No. 15/932,328 filed by UPS. The shipping carrier seeks to protect a new system for transportation of shipments leveraging blockchain technology to streamline delivery across a global supply chain that may include multiple different carriers. The application was filed on Feb. 16, 2018 and is titled “Autonomous Services Selection System and Distributed Transportation Databases.”
According to the application, when a package is received by UPS or another shipping service provider (e.g., USPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.) for transporting from an origin to a destination, the service provider typically determines a routing of the package through the service provider’s own transportation network. However, the package may need to travel to a region of the world not serviced by the service provider. For example, a package may be mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to a delivery address in China. In these situations, more than one service provider is needed to transport the package along different legs from its origin to its destination. The problem: It is often difficult to coordinate the transportation of the package through the various service provider transportation networks. This is where UPS’s blockchain invention comes into play. The patent application describes the invention as follows:
Systems and methods for automated determination and facilitation of a transportation plan for transporting a shipment unit containing at least one shipment unit through one or more transportation networks corresponding to one or more carriers. An exemplary method comprises receiving and storing in a distributed ledger service offers for transporting a shipment unit; receiving and storing in a distributed ledger shipment unit data comprising an origin, a destination, and transportation parameters; matching service offers stored in the distributed ledger to the shipment unit data to generate a transportation plan for transporting the shipment unit in accordance with the shipment unit data, each service offer corresponding to a leg of the transportation plan, receiving and storing in the distributed ledger an indication of completion of a particular leg of the transportation plan, and causing payment of an entity for transporting the shipment unit along the particular leg.
Recent trademark filings
Patents are not the only type of intellectual property filing to experience a surge related to blockchain technology. There are currently more than 1,800 pending trademark applications that include goods or services related to “bitcoin” or “blockchain.” Forbes filed U.S. Application Serial No. 88/049,890 on July 24, 2018 to register the mark FORBES CRYPTOMARKETS in association with a website in the field of cryptocurrencies, bitcoins, altcoins, digital tokens and financial information related thereto. On Dec. 26, 2017, Fidelity filed U.S. Application Serial No. 87/635/205 to register the mark FIDELITY DIGITAL ASSETS in association with financial consultancy services in the field of digital asset and blockchain services. JP Morgan Chase Bank owns U.S. Registration No. 5,257,953 for the mark QUORUM for computer software for enterprise blockchain development and application programming interface (API) software for development, testing, and integration of blockchain software applications to shared or distributed ledgers.
Application of blockchain technology to intellectual property registration and licensing
In addition to the recent surge of applications to register and protect intellectual property relating to blockchain technology, there is also potential to integrate the innovative technology into the intellectual property registration, commercialization and enforcement processes.
The International Trademark Association (INTA) has formed a Blockchain Task Force to examine the potential relevance of blockchain technology in trademark practice. Potential applications explored include the use of blockchain to provide trademark owners a secure method of documenting first use of the mark in commerce and proving the legitimacy of goods to support anticounterfeiting efforts.
Late last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force hosted a meeting on Developing the Digital Marketplace for Copyrighted Work at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters. One of the primary topics explored was the adoption and integration of blockchain technology into the online marketplace for copyrighted works. One idea is that the technology can be implemented to automatically track and compensate artists for the use of their creative works. There is no doubt that this exciting technology will impact the way clients protect, register, enforce and monetize their intellectual property.
Shanna K. Sanders, Esq. is a partner in the Albany office of Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti, PC. She can be reached at (518) 452-5600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.