Blockchain, as a field still in its juvenile stages, presents new and exciting possibilities for both tech entrepreneurs and investors. As with any technology breaking lots of new ground, the blockchain also poses questions and opportunities for intellectual property applications. Here, we discuss the impacts of intellectual property law in this new market, and how entrepreneurs can benefit.
What is IP Law and Why Does It Matter?
Intellectual property law, or IP law, is a system of protections and market rights for intangible property. Intellectual property, and infringement or theft, can be a bit more complicated than physical property disputes, and thus has a more complex set of laws that govern it.
There are four primary categories of IP law in the U.S.: copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and trademarks. Each protects a different type of intellectual property and functions in different ways.
Copyrights protect original creative work from infringement and imitation. Creations like artwork, music, and even literature are all covered, meaning that no one else is allowed to profit from, or distribute, a copy of the work. There are fair use exceptions for education purposes, but generally copyright holders reserve the right to license their work for a fee or bar others from using it.
Patents function as limited monopolies, allowing the patent holder sole production and selling rights to their approved invention for 20 years. Patents are much more difficult to obtain than copyrights, involving a very lengthy provisional patent application process, but also provide incredible potential for profit and business success. There are various patent subcategories that can function in different ways, but all of them reward invention and innovation.
Trade secrets are secrets that can help a company gain a competitive edge in the market by being kept confidential. These include such things as vendor and supplier lists, secret recipes or manufacturing processes, and other secrets of the trade. Lastly, trademarks are protected brand identifiers like company names, logos, jingles, and slogans.
Together, all of these categories cover a broad range of intellectual property and serve to protect the rightful owners and creators of their work.
Copyrights, Trademarks, and the Blockchain
Blockchain technology can be intertwined with most of these IP law types. We won’t cover trade secrets in this article. Trade secrets for advanced technologies can often be quite obscure and technical. However, let’s take a look at some other categories.
Copyrights are not incredibly common in the blockchain world, but they do come up in matters of coding. Coding is, at its core, a creative endeavor, and publicly released code can technically fall under copyright. However, it is more common to patent code, or keep it a trade secret entirely.
Trademarks matter in blockchain technology for the same reasons they do in all other markets: brand association. As blockchain technology expands and more and more players enter the arena, competition for customers will get more and more tough. The more brands there are competing for the same customers, the more a brand name and logo that are recognizable and undisputed are crucial aspects of a business looking to attract and retain adherent customers.
Patenting Blockchain Technology
Although copyrights, trade secrets, and trademarks all play a role in the developing blockchain world, patents are perhaps the most important type of IP law to consider.
The temporary monopoly granted by patenting opens up huge possibilities in terms of profitability, especially in a brand new market. The most successful patents are the ones that get in on the ground level of a large new venture. They generally establish themselves as a core aspect for future inventions to build on. That makes blockchain a promising avenue for patenting success.
However, the basic principle of the blockchain has been established and can no longer be patented. How, then, does a company go about patenting work in the blockchain market?
According to J.D. Houvener of Bold Patents Chicago, the complexity of the patent system allows for opportunities in innovative ways.
“Patents can be offered for significant and novel improvements on existing technology, as well as for different methods of achieving the same functional result. In regards to blockchain, this means that different organizational systems for the encrypted ledger, and different ways of displaying the same data may be eligible for patenting.”
Design patents offer another route altogether. This category of patents can protect nonfunctional elements of a product, such as aesthetic factors and design features. As the market becomes more crowded, design patents can function similarly to trademarks in establishing brand recognition and setting apart similar products.
The emerging blockchain market, though partially established already, still has a lot of room for growth. Intellectual property law is inextricably linked with startups and innovation, and this makes blockchain technology ripe for IP law applications. Copyrights, trade secrets, trademarks, but especially patents can be used to great effect to profit in the blockchain world. Make sure to consult qualified legal professionals specializing in intellectual property to figure out which options are best for you!