Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Blockchain, data and intellectual property: the shape of things to come?

Be afraid. Be very afraid?
Nick Holmes, writing in this month's Internet Newsletter for Lawyers, touches a topic to which many readers of this weblog will be even more averse than the dreaded BEPS -- the new data buzzword "blockchain". In "What is the blockchain?" he writes:
A blockchain is literally a chain of blocks of data recording transactions, connected using digital, cryptographic signatures. Confusingly, blockchain technology is often referred to simply as “Blockchain” (with cap B) or as “the blockchain” (with the definite article prepended). No doubt this usage stems from its initially unique and most widely-known application as the technology behind Bitcoin which was the inspiration for subsequent implementations (which are sometimes known as altchains).

A blockchain is thus a form of database that can be equated with a traditional ledger, a term still used in the digital age to describe a record of accounting transactions. More widely, a ledger might describe a record of any sequence of transactions, such as land registrations or transfers of intellectual property.

The other central attribute of a blockchain database is that it is a distributed ledger, meaning that the ledger is not maintained by a central authority [such as a national or regional IP granting office] but is distributed amongst participants, such that each has access to the ledger whose copies are updated more or less in synchrony.
Holmes then quotes "Ledgers and Law in the Blockchain", posted on King's College Cambridge's King's Review, in which authors Quinn DuPont and Bill Maurer say:
“the key characteristics of a blockchain that make it a special kind of ledger and that are particularly appealing to developers and proponents are that it is: distributed, decentralized, public or transparent, time-stamped, persistent, and verifiable [thus addressing issues that led to the establishment last summer of the ORoPO open register of patent ownership].”
Impressive fuel has been added to the fire. Holmes notes that the UK Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport, in a report published in January, set out his thinking on how this technology could transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity. According to Sir Mark:
“Distributed ledger technology could provide government with new tools to reduce fraud, error and the cost of paper intensive processes. It also has the potential to provide new ways of assuring ownership and provenance for goods and intellectual property.”
Precisely how this will happen is probably beyond the technical capacity of many of this blog's readers (as well as its writers) to appreciate. Nonetheless the point at which these predictions become fact will have huge repercussions for IP due diligence, transactions, warranties of title, IP analytics and probably a good deal more besides.  

This weblog will keep an eye on IP-related blockchain developments. Meanwhile, readers' thoughts and observations are very much welcome.

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