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20th February 2017

Blockchain Patents: Where is control of the new technology heading?

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In short, a blockchain is an “open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. This ledger “can also be programmed to trigger transactions automatically”. Now that we are all getting a better idea of what blockchain is and what it’s supposed to do, the time has come to ask who actually owns or controls the technology that drives it.

First, with the aid of Cipher we can take a look at the broad geographical distribution of blockchain-related patents.

This chart shows that by far the largest number of patent families cover China, with Japan, South Korea and the United States leading the pack of distant pursuers. Most of the Chinese patents have a highly parochial flavour to them, in that only 8% of blockchain patents covering China are also granted in other territories. In comparison with the Asia-Pacific area, the rest of the world shows a generally low level of blockchain patenting activity.

Blockchain technology is of substantial interest to the banking sector, so it’s worth noting that, according to Investopedia, the main banking nations in the world in 2015 were China, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.  Of these four nations, just two (China and the United States) show substantial patent coverage, with the United Kingdom and France being replaced by Japan and South Korea. The leading European jurisdiction here is Germany.

The next chart reviews active blockchain patent families over time, from 2000 to 2016.

Historically speaking, the first work on cryptographically secured block chains was published as long ago as 1991, but the first patents in regard to the technology saw the light only in the early 2000s. We can see that the rate of acceleration in the growth of active patent families has been increasing, with the number of patents doubling over the past two years (2014-2016).

Putting China aside, who are the biggest patenting actors?

In the figure above, the size of the box represents the number of blockchain patents owned by the company in relation to the whole technology field in 2017, while the colour represents the positive/negative change in proportion/share between 2014-2017. From this figure we can see that a large proportion of patents in the blockchain space are held by private owners/inventors, and that the major players are a mix of tech, financial services and blockchain/cryptocurrency companies.

Excluding private owners, the data reflected in the previous figure looks like this:

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