The conference was the European Patent Office’s (EPO’s) first majoring in the area of blockchain; the conference was held with around 350 delegates at the EPO offices in The Hague and was also broadcast to the EPO’s Munich office for other Examiners to tune in.
Much has been said in recent times about the coming of the fourth industrial revolution and its impact, and blockchain will likely form a key part of that revolution. Similarly, there has been a lot of hype and excitement around the implementations of blockchain, from the plethora of cryptocurrencies to registries of the identity of individuals or the ownership of high end goods.
Nonetheless, António Campinos, the President of the EPO, and Georg Weber, an Operational Director in the ICT group of the EPO, were keen to stress that, as far as patent examination goes, blockchain technologies are nothing special and no revolution in the examination process is needed. Instead, the highlighted that blockchain technologies are still computer implemented inventions and that the EPO’s recently updated guidelines for the examination of computer implemented inventions and their extensive resources and tools for searching such inventions would have no problem in handling blockchain patents.
To help get everyone on the same page, Marieke Flament and Claire Wells of Circle, a global crypto finance company, gave a presentation setting out what blockchain is, its historical growth and the major players in the blockchain ecosystem. The need for harmonised regulation and standardised infrastructure was discussed, and that once this has been achieved the final hurdle will be mass adoption.
Despite the need for harmonised regulation and standardised infrastructure, the panel discussion regarding the possible future impact of blockchain was keen to highlight that bodies such as the European Commission should not attempt to regulate too quickly as this would constrain the innovation. Instead, as has been discussed in previous forums for other new and disruptive technologies such as 3D / additive printing, the innovation should be allowed to happen and then the framework for regulation can be adapted around this innovation.
The IP landscape panel discussion further developed this and noted that space also needs to be created for blockchain technologies to be able to test the waters and grow without litigation suffocating the innovation. Litigation is typically too expensive for all but the biggest players and so a number of the stakeholders in the blockchain area have been keen from the outset to join anti-troll consortiums or licencing pools such as the Open Innovation Network. Blockchain technology was originally open source, but of course open source does not always mean patent free; nonetheless, Mirko Boehm of the Open Innovation Network commented that he felt the industry had an understanding of non-assertion for any patents that cover the high level fundamental concepts for blockchain.
While the EPO consider their current computer implemented invention guidelines for examination to tell you everything you need to know about how blockchain applications should be handled, Koen Lievens, a Director in the ICT group of the EPO, did give a high level example for each of the EPO’s subject matter groups of an application of blockchain technology that the EPO would consider to be patentable.
For the ICT subject matter group, the example was directed to a system for profiling blockchain transactions in order to identify malicious transactions and improve the reliability of the core blockchain ledger and prevent tampering.
For the Mobility and Mechatronics subject matter group, the example was directed to a system applying blockchain for recording and reporting incidents on roadways, where the incidents can be verified by multiple vehicles providing corresponding incident data that can then be used in the routing of other vehicles to avoid traffic.
For the Health, Biotechnology and Chemistry subject matter group, the example was directed to a system applying blockchain for monitoring biological fluids using sensors and controlling the access to such patient data in a confidential and traceable manner.
Wang Xinyi, an Expert Patent Examiner of the China National Intellectual Property Administration, gave a Chinese perspective of blockchain technologies and it was interesting to note that the Central Bank of China has announced that Bitcoin and other related virtual money is not allowed in financial institutions because it is considered that this may lead to instability of the Chinese financial market. This in turn has led to the conclusion that any application directed to such virtual money would be detrimental to the public interest and would be excluded from patentability for this reason. Despite this, China is by far the most common jurisdiction for patent applications in patent families that have been identified as relating to blockchain technologies.
For PCT applications identified as relating to blockchain technologies, the majority of the priority applications were seen to originate from US first filings and it was noted that blockchain related patent applications have increased exponentially in recent years in general.
Nobuyuki Taniguchi of Nakamura & Partners patent attorneys in Japan also presented and outlined the Japanese Patent Office’s comparatively favourable consideration of blockchain related patent applications due to its lower bar for eligibility and inventive step, in particular since, in contrast to European practice, non-technical features are able to contribute towards the inventive step consideration in Japan. This contributes to there being a high patent application allowance rate for business related inventions in Japan, with typically around a quarter of these applications being prosecuted under accelerated examination.
For anyone who was not able to make the conference, the majority of the sessions have been uploaded onto YouTube and can also be found through the links on the EPO website.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.