Blockchain and Intellectual Property: How Bitcoin Technology Might Change IP Protection and Registry - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Blockchain and Intellectual Property: How Bitcoin Technology Might Change IP Protection and Registry

Blockchain and Intellectual Property: How Bitcoin Technology Might Change IP Protection and Registry

The same technology behind the electronic currency bitcoin 1 has continued to find new applications in transactions involving important legal documents and information, including intellectual property. 2 Blockchain technology allows intellectual property creators to store their art or inventions on a secure ledger, so they can keep track of a “verifiable copy” of their original work. 3

The blockchain, invented by an anonymous cryptographer under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, 4 is “a shared ledger for recording the history of transactions that cannot be altered.” 5 Typically, when parties enter into an exchange with one another, a centralized third party—usually a bank, or notary—must be involved to validate the transaction. 6 Blockchain allows parties to transact with one another without a third party, through a digital ledger that keeps track of the transaction as a bank would. 7 The ledger is different from a bank, though, because it is not stored in a central entity server, but rather, “distributed across a network of private computers.” 8 Once the transaction is recorded on the ledger, it cannot be tampered with. 9

While originally used for currency-based transactions, blockchain technology is now on the radar of lawyers, including IP lawyers. 10 Blockchain allows IP creators to safely store their unregistered works in a secure ledger and timestamp them for later registration and protection. 11 By storing their information in a blockchain, they can ensure their work will not be tampered with or lost, and they maintain decentralized proof of it 12 before going through the process of registering with a third party—i.e., the United States Patent and Trademark Office. 13 In theory, the blockchain is a safe and efficient way of cataloguing works, because, like bitcoin transactions, it stores them on multiple private computers rather than a single centralized one. 14

The blockchain has obvious implications for unregistered copyrightable works, and patentable inventions, particularly when a creator wants to bring an infringement action. For example, authors or patent inventors can safely store a time-stamped “cryptographic digest” of their writing or designs in the blockchain,15 so that if they decide to bring a lawsuit for infringement before registering their work or while in the process of registering it, they can easily prove when it first existed. 16 Furthermore, blockchain could allow creators to track the use and chain of title of their work through licenses, sub-licenses, and assignments in the system, and “automatically disable a licensee’s ability to trade once the rights expire.” 17 The blockchain’s ability to clearly track IP rights might even find applications in trademark law. 18 Businesses could submit a potential trademark through the chain that would use an algorithm to find whether it is similar to existing marks, and then either grant the trademark or refuse it automatically. 19 The blockchain could also record actual use of a trademark, and notify the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office immediately, thereby lowering businesses’ burden of collecting evidence of use. 20 Finally, just as bitcoin has the potential to create a unified system of transactions across the world, blockchain could enable a more uniform system of IP registry recognized in many different countries. 21

While the blockchain has the potential to decrease the cost of litigation, and create greater protection for unregistered works, it is unclear whether it can or actually will replace the current system of registries—particularly in the U.S. where these systems hold significant weight in proving rights.22 Furthermore, if the blockchain does find wide use, it will most likely face some regulation in the process.23 Until then, the system seems to be an efficient way for creators to give additional protection to their works.


  1. See Paul Gil, What are Bitcoins? How do Bitcoins Work?, Lifewire (Sept. 5, 2017), https://www.lifewire.com/what-are-bitcoins-2483146 [https://perma.cc/EVS3-2Q87].

  2. See Francois Oustry, Blockchain Based Solutions for Intellectual Property Management, Medium (May 21, 2017), https://medium.com/@foustry/blockchain-based-solutions-for-intellectual-property-management-2ba14b51d5f6 [https://perma.cc/2Z3Q-BH2L].

  3. See Jill Richmond, Verifying Intellectual Property on the Blockchain, http://www.nasdaq.com/article/verifying-intellectual-property-on-the-blockchain-cm796302 [https://perma.cc/3MX4-HWNJ].

  4. See Nathaniel Popper, Decoding the Enigma of Satoshi Nakamoto and the Birth of Bitcoin, The New York Times (May 15, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/business/decoding-the-enigma-of-satoshi-nakamoto-and-the-birth-of-bitcoin.html?mcubz=1 [https://perma.cc/KG32-AK9W].

  5. IBM, Blockchain 101 Infographic, IBM (Oct. 3, 2017) https://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?htmlfid=XI912346USEN& [https://perma.cc/A9PU-4X8W].

  6. See Michele D’Aliessi, How Does the Blockchain Work: The Blockchain Technology Explained in Simple Words, Medium (June 1, 2016) https://medium.com/@micheledaliessi/how-does-the-blockchain-work-98c8cd01d2ae [https://perma.cc/G8Z3-D46D].

  7. See id.

  8. See id.

  9. Blockchain 101 Infographic, supra note 5.[/foonote] All this means that transactions stored in the blockchain cannot be altered or destroyed, and the inefficiencies of relying on a third party are eliminated. [footnote]See id.

  10. See Peter Chawaga, Legal Field Embraces Promising Use Cases for Blockchain Tech, Bitcoin Magazine (April 11, 2017), https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/legal-field-embraces-promising-use-cases-blockchain-tech/ [https://perma.cc/78QS-94VC]; Hogan Lovells LLP, Blockchain Linked Ledgers, Hogan Lovells LLP (September 22, 2016) https://www.hoganlovells.com/en/knowledge/topic-centers/blockchain [https://perma.cc/3HZR-QSS9]; See Blockchain Based Solutions for Intellectual Property Management, supra note 2.

  11. See Blockchain Based Solutions for Intellectual Property Management, supra note 2.

  12. See id.

  13. Ruth Burstall and Birgit Clark, Blockchain, IP and the Fashion Industry, Managing Intellectual Property (March 23, 2017) http://www.managingip.com/Article/3667444/Blockchain-IP-and-the-fashion-industry.html [https://perma.cc/XG8Q-34ZE].

  14. See Verifying Intellectual Property on the Blockchain, supra note 3.

  15. See Bitcoin, Blockchain Notary, Blockchain (Oct. 3, 2017) https://notary.bitcoin.com/ [https://perma.cc/BX5E-86VH].

  16. See Blockchain Based Solutions for Intellectual Property Management, supra note 29. But see Verifying Intellectual Property on the Blockchain, supra note 3 (“Since U.S. Copyright Office registration serves as prima facie proof of ownership, in most cases, a third-party service is superfluous from a content protection standpoint. While non-repudiation services can provide a public record of ownership and a means to track a work back to its author, something the U.S. Copyright Office can’t do as effectively, that capability relies upon people being aware of the database and knowing how to search within it. More importantly, copyright is governed by a patchwork of local laws that differ in sometimes important ways.”).

  17. See Thomas H. Vidal, Harnessing Blockchain to Manage IP Assets, Inside Counsel (March 20, 2017), http://www.insidecounsel.com/2017/03/20/harnessing-blockchain-to-manage-ip-assets [https://perma.cc/9SSE-ZVPX].

  18. See Joseph Raczynski, How Might Blockchain Technology Revolutionize the Legal Industry, Thomson Reuters (June 9, 2016) https://blogs.thomsonreuters.com/answerson/might-blockchain-technology-revolutionize-legal-industry/ [https://perma.cc/A5FE-5KL2].

  19. See id.

  20. See Blockchain, IP and the Fashion Industry, supra note 14.

  21. See How Might Blockchain Technology Revolutionize the Legal Industry, supra note 19.

  22. See Verifying Intellectual Property on the Blockchain, supra note 3.

  23. See id; see Blockchain, IP and the Fashion Industry, supra note 14.

Alessandra Dagirmanjian

Alessandra Dagirmanjian is a second-year student at Fordham University School of Law, and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media, and Entertainment Law Journal.