Blockchain patent activity increases – but granted patents are still rare in this field

Since late 2015 a considerable media hype could be observed around cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, or, more generalized, distributed ledger technology. Is this hype reflected by a corresponding rapidly rising number of patent applications ?

The following diagram shows the number of US-, EP- and PCT patent applications (source: Derwent Innovation patent database) since 2011 as well as granted US and EP patents containing the expressions “blockchain” or “bitcoin” or “distributed ledger” in the title, the abstract, or the claims. The x-axis represents the year of the first filing date (priority date) of a patent family; applications filed both e.g. in the US and in Europe are thus counted only once.

Blockchain patents Feb 2018

The diagram shows a siginificant increase of the patent activity from 20 patent applications in 2013 to 324 patent applications in 2016, but not a hype. One must keep in mind, however, that patent applications are in general published only 18 months after the earliest filing date. The development in the last 18 months is thus not visible in this diagram. Moreover, many blockchain projects are open source and do not seek patent protection.

The number of patent grants (which are publidhed without delay) shows only very modest numbers. In 2017, 21 US patents and 1 EP patent relating to blockchain technology have been granted.

The top 10 patent applicants (assignees) are shown in the following diagram:


Blockchain patent applicants Feb 2018

US applicants dominate, lead by Mastercard with 44 applications, bearing in mind that Chinese national applications are not included. The most important applicants from Europe are Nchain, the vehicle of “would-be Satoshi Nakamoto” Craig Wright and British Telecom, owning the single granted European patent relating to blockchain technology.


The Bass-Spangenberg patent validity attacks: A new patent monetization model. Soon to be expected in Europe under the UPC ?

The activities of non-practicing entities (NPE´s; by some referred to as “patent trolls”) trying to make money by acquiring and enforcing patents against third parties are still very controversially discussed in the US as well as in Europe. Taking up criticism that NPE´s would threaten innocent operating companies with enforcement of allegedly invalid patents, in early 2015, well-known hedge-fund manager Kylie Bass together with IP expert Erich Spangenberg devised a new patent-monetization strategy based not on patent enforcement but on challenging the validity of essential patents of target companies in the pharmaceutical area. Putting into place an aptly named “Coalition for affordable drugs” (CFAD), they targeted high-priced patented drugs. The strategy is to look for publicly traded pharmaceutical companies the value of which is substantially dependent on a low number of patents which, based on a first analysis, have questionable validity. Then they challenge the validity of these patents by way of the newly introduced, allegedly fast and low-cost (compared to a full patent trial in the US) inter partes review (IPR) process at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of the USPTO, which had quickly gained a reputation of high invalidation rates. To make sure that – besides the effect of reduced prices for the patented drugs in case of success – the fund investors receive a return on investment, Bass and Spangenberg short-sell stock of the targeted pharmaceutical companies. In case the attacks on the validity of the patent(s) of such company create considerable uncertainty in the financial markets, this results in falling stock prices and thus profits for the investors. How successful the strategy turns out to be in the courtroom cannot yet be judged, since the 30 initiated IPR proceedings (by 18 December 2015) all started only in 2015 and are still pending, but it certainly was big news in the US IP monetization community. The pharmaceutical industry understandably is less enthusiastic.

There is already speculation to extend this patent monetization strategy to companies outside the pharmaceutical industry. A company qualifies as a potential target for a Bass-Spangenberg attack if the following requirements are fulfilled:

  • The company is publicly traded and is large enough that a liquid market of its stock exists
  • The validity of one or a small number of patents has large impact on the overall (future) profits of the company and therefore its share price
  • The validity of these patents is questionable

The second requirement apparently rules out most companies in the telecoms area, as the validity of a single patent has not much effect because products and services in these technologies typically use hundreds or thousands of patents. Sadly, innovative enterprises heavily relying on a single or a small number of patented products are particularly vulnerable.

One precondition for this strategy was the novel availability of a relatively fast and low-cost stand-alone (i.e. independent of an infringement lawsuit) inter-partes procedure to challenge the validity of a granted patent. Such proceedings, however, are long established in Germany as well Europe-wide in the form of opposition or nullity proceedings. Thus, the strategy should in principle work on this side of the Atlantic, too. While the German market alone may be too small to sufficiently affect the share price of generally globally acting pharmaceutical company, a patent loss with effect for Europe as a whole should be sufficient to have a visible effect on share prices. Opposition procedures have the disadvantage of the strict nine-month deadline after publication of patent grant such that patents in later stages (which often are the more profitable ones) can only be attacked in various national courts.

Here the UPC may provide a new opportunity to patent validity challenge investors. The validity of European patents, which have not been opted out of the UPC, can be attacked in with single action before the central division of the Unified Patent Court. The court practice and the invalidation statistics are of course not yet known. But at least there could a great potential for creating uncertainty, which alone can drive down share prices. Such uncertainty is only reinforced by the considerable publicity to be expected for earlier important cases under the new UPC.

Companies considering itself possible targets of such central invalidity attacks could avoid these by making sure to opt-out from the UPC its essential patent rights from the first day the UPC enters into force, since after an invalidation action has been launched against a patent, opting out this patent is no longer possible. In order to make sure that the opting out takes effect right with the UPC coming into force a so-called “sunrise period” has been introduced, allowing patentees to file requests for opt-out before the start of the UPC, having effect on its first day of operation.

Will the CRISPR patent dispute continue before the EPO ?

WO2013176772-Fig. 2

The revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing method is presently the hottest issue in molecular biology. The scientists Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkely and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max-Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin even are among the top contenders for the Nobel prize for Chemistry to be announced on Wednesdy, October 7. But there is also a dispute about who owns the IP related to this scientific breakthrough. A third scientist, namely Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute (jointly operated by the MIT and Harvard University) has built up a strong patent position and achieved the first patent grant for CRISPR technology in the US already in April 2014. The original patent application by Doudna and Charpentier (and from which the above illustration of the DNA editing is taken) is still pending (on October 5, 2015) before the USPTO and the EPO. In April 2015 the University of California has meawhile initiated interference proceedings before the USPTO to decide ownership of the technology.

A review of the EPO register now reveals that the agggressive patent stategy of the Broad Institute and Mr. Zhang was even more successful in Europe. By means of an ultra-fast prosecution procedure the grant of 4 patents was achieved between February 11 and September 2, 2015. Further applications are still pending. The patents were issued by the EPO even with knowledge of the original publications of Doudna and Charpentier, which predate the priority dates of the Zhang patents and have been submitted to the EPO files by anonymous third-party observations.

It is therefore not unlikely that a further main battleground of the IP dispute on who owns the CRISPR-Cas9 technology will soon be the EPO, where opposition proceedings against the 4 granted patents are likely and the legal rules for determining ownership on an invention differ from that in the US.

Let´s see how the Nobel committe will decide on Wednesday this week. It will then be interesting to observe if a Nobel prize for CRISPR-Cas9 in 2015 or one of the following years will influence the outcome of the legal dispute.