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Blockchain and intellectual property - where are we now and what does the future have in store?

This Kat had the pleasure of attending IR Global’s event on IP and blockchain this morning. A select gathering of IP experts from around the world sat down in a London hotel and considered the merits of blockchain and what it could mean for the (intellectual property) future.
What is blockchain?
The most well known example of a blockchain is Bitcoin, a form of cryptocurrency based on a particular blockchain but there are any more options.
For the uninitiated, blockchain is a form of "distributed ledger technology". This essentially means that it is a database which is simultaneously available via a network to any number of computers in the same format at the same time. Rather than having a centralised authority stating whether or not a particular change to the database is accurate or "true," the accuracy of a transaction is determined via some pre-agreed method of consensus between the computers (or "nodes") which are part of the particular blockchain network.
This means that the accuracy of the data in the blockchain is much more reliable, accurate and secure than a centralised system. This has various interesting use cases for the world of IP, particularly in terms of tracking (i) digital assets such as music or photographs to enable more accurate and transparent royalty payments and (ii) physical assets via a unique reference number (such as a QR code) which is added to the physical product and enables an individual item to be identified in and tracked through the blockchain.

How do you join a blockchain?

Bitcoin is an open system which allows everyone to join the system but has a method for determining consensus via proof of state (also known as bitcoin mining). As some participants noted, you might need to get some help with tech support in downloading and installing the relevant software... Other closed systems may be available on an invitation only basis.

Examples of the blockchain in practice
Blockchain may be a hot topic but is it actually put into general practice? Judging by the experience of the attendees, a lot of businesses are considering potential use cases but the options are not necessarily ones where a blockchain would be necessary or even appropriate.
For example, it is not necessary to record share certificates for a private company when all shareholders will typically have their own copy of the register in any event - a sort of unofficial blockchain.
Similarly, there is a music payment platform which is looking at tracking music streams and downloads on Spotify and similar platforms in order to determine more precise royalty payments. This information is already available without the need for a blockchain but it could be helpful to make the payments process linked to a blockchain in order to improve transparency and, to use a popular tech term, reduce "friction" in the process.
The two major advantages of the blockchain are security and transparency. This makes blockchain technology particularly useful in the context of supply chain management and anti-counterfeiting. For example, Everledger started off tracking diamonds and liaising with everyone from Customs to diamonds dealers in order to demonstrate the provenance of the gems listed on its blockchain. Its technology has since been embraced by other industries such as the luxury goods industry.
Smart contracts
Smart contracts are not necessarily contracts (or even than smart). Essentially they mean that X event (such as the transfer of an asset) occurs when Y conditions are met. This could be in the context of the release of funds in a transaction or even the transfer of deeds in a property. Apparently the Swedish real estate system has been streamlined thanks to smart contracts which have been both popular and efficient.
Do you need a blockchain at all?
In many circumstances, probably not but it can improve speed, transparency and security in a wide number of situations from factory audits and supply chain to digital rights management. It is a new technology which is still finding its feet and may not be useful in every situation but it is worth getting your head around the basic concepts now.
Even if blockchain is just a trendy term which helps people to review their digital houses and physical supply chains, it is still a helpful process to go through.
Want to find out more?
For those interested in finding out more about the blockchain - check out my article for the Trademark Reporter which looks at the use of blockchain in the fashion industry.
For a more negative view on blockchain see this recent article from The Guardian