Blockchain can Be Patented, But not Bitcoin
Amazon. AT&T. Bank of America. Goldman Sachs. IBM. JPMorgan. Mastercard. R3. Western Union. Verizon. These are just a few of the corporations which have filed blockchain-related patent applications worldwide. But, what about bitcoin-specific patent applications, not blockchain?
Bitcoin Can’t Be Patented
Because Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin white paper and disappeared shortly after releasing the early versions of the digital currency, Bitcoin is part of the public domain. Only novel additions, variations, and use-cases might be patented around the technology. A search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office database reveals 148 patents which mention the term bitcoin.
“Bitcoin inventions typically involve applications of, or improvements to, the Bitcoin protocol,” Attorney Howard H. Sheerin of Silicon Valley IP tells Bitcoin.com. “Bitcoin inventions are typically software inventions with the patent claims covering operations executed by a general purpose computer.”
Bitcoin Companies Apply For Patents
For example, bitcoin miner Bitmain has filed the following patent; the company describes its “Optimizing method, device, and circuit for Hash computing chip of bitcoin proof of work” which “relates to the technical field of cipher computing, computer network, and integrated circuits.”
Bitmain adds in a 2014 application: “The method, device and circuit provided by the invention greatly reduce the power consumption of the circuit.”
21 Inc’s patent application for a “Digital currency mining circuitry with adaptable difficulty compare capabilities” represents a “cryptographic hashing circuitry such as mining circuitry used to mine digital currency may be formed on an integrated circuit…”
Bitgo’s application pertains to “virtual currency address security.” As described in the application, “The network device is configured to generate a digital currency address using the public keys of the two or more second public-private key pairs and a public key of the first public-private key pair.”
San Francisco-based exchange Coinbase has filed several applications, including a patent for a “security system forming part of a bitcoin host computer.”
Coinbase also filed a patent for a “computer system for making a payment using a tip button.” The application describes a system by which “bitcoin can be sent to an email address, ” and a “tip button rewards content creators for their efforts.” Also described is a bitcoin exchange enabling “users to set prices that they are willing to sell or buy bitcoin and execute such trades.” Coinbase has numerous patents filed globally.
Blockchain Patents, Not Bitcoin
Popular gift card for bitcoin company Gyft filed for a blockchain-related patent. The company describes a “method for providing fraud protection and transaction tracing for gift card accounts through the use of a public blockchain ledger.” In the patent, digital gift cards are associated with tokens that can be sent between user accounts.
Gyft adds: “Numerous types of transactions are published to the blockchain ledger including initial purchases, reserving/claiming of debit codes, transfers of tokens between accounts, and depleting of gift card value associated with a token.”
As well, blockchain technology company Blockstream filed a patent for a system which encrypts “an amount transacted on a blockchain ledger while preserving the transaction’s ability to be verified.”
Non-Bitcoin Entities Applying for Bitcoin Patents
Many non-bitcoin entities have filed patents containing blockchain-related language.
Craig Wright, who controversially claimed to be the bitcoin founder but failed to provide proof, filed dozens of patent applications with the UK Intellectual Property Office.
Nautilus Hyosung, a global provider of banking industry products, filed a patent claim for a “bitcoin transaction system using ATM.”
Nautilus Hyosung describes: “…[B]y connecting a management server for managing ATMs with a bitcoin exchange market server…a client can purchase bitcoin from the bitcoin exchange market by depositing cash directly using the ATM or sell own bitcoin to the bitcoin exchange market and withdraw cash.”
“Some industry participants object to software patents for covering simple inventions that unfairly impede innovation,” Mr. Sheerin notes. “Recent court decisions are sympathetic to this concern and have invalidated certain software patents covering inventions on well-known or obvious ideas that are merely implemented using a general purpose computer.”
This does not mean all software inventions are unpatentable, including those related to bitcoin.
“The courts have found software patents valid when the underlying idea of a software invention improves the operation of a general purpose computer in a manner not suggested by the prior art,” Mr. Sheerin explains. “The legal question for Bitcoin inventions is the same as for other types of inventions: does the patented invention cover a novel, non-obvious idea? This standard will likely be applied to bitcoin inventions creating a spectrum ranging from clearly patentable inventions, to questionably patentable inventions, to clearly unpatentable inventions.”
Bitcoin patents, even when held by companies in good standing, raise concern in the Bitcoin Community. Let alone when held by multinational corporations.
To dissuade concern, Bitgo and Blockstream adopted Innovators Patent Agreement (IPA), a new way of patent assignment pioneered by Twitter to keep control with engineers and designers. It’s a commitment by a company that a patent can only be used for defensive purposes. Coinbase wrote in a November blog post it was leaning towards adopting a Formal Patent Pledge.
MIT Digital Currency Initiative Brian Forde has floated the idea of a defensive patent pool like the Open Invention Network for Linux.
By Justin O' Connell