The discussion about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology is hard to escape. When you turn on the news, you are likely to hear about the fluctuations of the many cryptocurrencies or the new applications blockchain technologies are bringing to everyday life. Since the official release of Bitcoin in 2009, (the money exchange system that pioneered blockchain) blockchain technology has not only disrupted the way in which we transfer money, but also other assets such as cars and real estate.
The real value of blockchain technology is inherent in its ability to decentralize information that was previously held by only a few institutions (transaction information held by banks, for example), and place that information into a shared or “distributed ledger” accessible to all. In its simplest form, a blockchain is a new form of decentralized database that enables transaction transparency, eliminates costs associated with previous transaction systems, and is continually becoming more and more ubiquitous in our society. Naturally, this innovation has resulted in thousands of blockchain-related patent applications being filed in a relatively short period. And now, as some of these patents have come to issue, we have enough information to investigate the patent prosecution history and patent statistics of this world-shaping technology.
“Blockchain” Patent Claims
Despite the influx of blockchain patent applications filed with the USPTO since 2009, only sixteen patents explicitly mentioning “blockchain” in their claims have issued so far. The majority of these USPTO-filed patent applications have been assigned to Art Unit 3685, an art unit specializing in data processing that has allowed only 33.1 percent of the nearly seven thousand patent applications examined by its team of patent examiners. On top of an exceptionally low patent allowance rate, Art Unit 3685 also typically challenges patent applicants to overcome three office actions and spend five years in patent prosecution prior to issuance. Fortunately, concepts as novel as blockchain technology result in much more favorable patent statistics - an average 1.2 office actions and fourteen months in prosecution for patent applications with “blockchain” claims.
“Distributed Ledger” Patent Claims
As mentioned, many blockchain-related patent applications have been filed. However, not all of them mention “blockchain” in their claims. As new developments arise, patents for ancillary inventions will arise as well. Terminology will evolve and concepts spurring from the core of blockchain will become the basis for new patent claims. For example, 73 patent applications have been filed with the USPTO mentioning a “distributed ledger” in their claims. Due to most of these patent applications being filed recently, only three of them have issued and zero “distributed ledger” patent applications have abandoned to this point. The first USPTO-granted “distributed ledger” patent issued in February 2016 in just over six months of prosecution, and without facing any office actions from a patent examiner. The other USPTO “distributed ledger” patents also had very little trouble during patent prosecution, however, this will undoubtedly change as “novel" and “nonobvious” ideas become harder to come by.
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