China leads blockchain patent applications

China was the most active filer of blockchain patent applications last year as the country’s technology and financial services groups rushed to claim exclusivity on the “mutual distributed ledger” that could revolutionise finance and other supply chains.

Data collated by Thomson Reuters from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) database showed that in 2017, more than half of the 406 blockchain related patent applications were from China.

Patent applications for blockchain, whose uses span everything from the distribution of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin to the tracking of Chinese chickens, trebled last year, while patents specific to cryptocurrencies — which are not included the blockchain patent category — rose 16 per cent to 602 in 2017. 

“Companies are moving fast in order to protect their ideas in new areas of technological development — long before the technology actually goes to market,” said Alex Batteson, editor at Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law.

China filed 225 of the blockchain patents last year and 59 in 2016, followed by the US (91 in 2017 and 21 in 2016) and Australia (13 last year and 19 in 2016). 

Of the top nine filer of blockchain patents between 2012 and 2017, six were Chinese, led by Beijing Technology Development. US headquartered payments giant MasterCard was the most active filer in the same period, filing 25 while Lichtenstein’s nChain Holdings, which describes itself as the “global leader in research and development of blockchain technologies” filed 18 applications.

Thomson Reuters said recent blockchain applications include Bank of America applying to patent a technology that facilitates “person-to-person alias-based payments”, BT Group seeking a patent for a way to detect attacks on blockchain, and MasterCard International asking for one to cover a blockchain-based method for tracking payments and uploading data on to the blockchain at the point of sale. 

Not every company patents its discoveries, and not all patents lead to viable products or use case, but Thomson Reuters said the patent data were meaningful because they indicated activity in a space and could create barriers to entry.

“Patents are also important for companies to attract all-important investment,” Mr Batteson added. “Investors need to know that a business owns and can capitalise on the intellectual property and will not face interference from other parties claiming ownership.” 

China has been less dominant in bitcoin and cryptocurrency applications, where the top filers over the past five years were dominated by US and European companies including IBM (54), the Netherland’s Gemalto (35), Intel (34), Thomson Licensing (31) and Amazon Technologies (27). 

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