US vs China: the race to patent blockchain


Elizabeth Lam

US vs China: the race to patent blockchain

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As the race between the US and China to patent blockchain heats up, Elizabeth Lam of Minesoft outlines how innovation and research and development insights can be drawn from patent data.

Sensationalised headlines urging people to “Invest in Bitcoin to get rich quick!” made Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies notorious, and the volatility of Bitcoin’s value might make the blockchain technology it is built on seem unstable or overhyped.

However, the application of blockchain extends far beyond fintech. For example, patent applications in legaltech include blockchain-enabled smart contracts and, in global supply chains, blockchain can be used to track and authenticate goods.

This is thanks to the added security afforded by blockchain technology, which essentially creates a traceable and public digital trail of transactions, speeding up information delivery and authentication processes.

Simply put, the compound word “blockchain” encapsulates digital information “blocks” that are stored and connected in a public network “chain”. The growing global interest and investment in this technology area are evident in the increasing patenting activity surrounding blockchain, which can be seen on a global patent database such as PatBase.

PatBase’s intuitive online interface makes it seamless to search, review, analyse and share patent data. The platform handles broad and narrow search queries with ease and can load an unlimited number of records into the integrated PatBase Analytics V3 instantly.

PatBase Analytics enables users to create graphical analyses of high-quality patent data to derive intelligence that can be obtained only by studying patenting activity. This article will share a few of the charts generated on PatBase and demonstrate how you can easily draw innovation and research and development insights from this data.

The patent race

Ant Group—previously known as Ant Financial (the fintech subsidiary of Alibaba)—and Chinese shipping giant COSCO have entered a blockchain-logistics partnership rivalling the partnership between US technology company IBM and Danish shipping company Maersk.

IBM has invested heavily in developing enterprise blockchain solutions on its cloud services and Maersk is the largest freight company in the world. COSCO, meanwhile, is the third-largest freight company in the world. Alibaba, predominantly an e-commerce company, is often quoted as the largest blockchain patent owner worldwide.

The formation of these strategic partnerships indicates that there is direct competition to use blockchain technology to radically disrupt logistics management processes. The race is on for these teams to see which solution can be implemented first to keep pace with the increasing global demands to digitise and disrupt the shipping and logistics industry.

“The top assignees listed for blockchain-related patents are Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Google, Alibaba, Samsung, Philips, and Nokia.”

Elizabeth Lam, Minesoft

Identifying relevant patents in an area of interest is a streamlined process using PatBase’s search forms. A keyword search was carried out to identify blockchain-related patents using the truncation function on PatBase which broadens a search by ensuring that all variations of spelling and spacing are accounted for.

Key terms included in the search were “blockchain”, “distributed ledger”, “decentralised ledger”, “certificate chain”, and “hash chain”.

Across the approximately 65 million patent families held in the database, PatBase identified a little under 100,000 patent families related to blockchain. PatBase organises millions of patent documents into families, which contain all documents related to a single invention, thus reducing duplication and the time needed for review.

The patent documents which related to blockchain were then seamlessly loaded into the integrated PatBase Analytics V3 to view graphical analyses of this data.

Who and where?

Figure 1 below shows that the top five jurisdictions by the number of patent applications over the last 20 years have been (largest to smallest) US, China, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the European Patent Office and Japan.

Overall, the number of applications is increasing across each of these jurisdictions, suggesting this is a growing area of interest worldwide.

Some years of note for the US are 2008 to 2011, when there was a slight dip in the number of blockchain patent applications following the financial crash.

For China, a significant year is 2017, when Chinese President Xi Jinping encouraged the acceleration of development of blockchain technologies, sparking an influx of investment into blockchain and cryptocurrency-related businesses. This increase in resources is clearly reflected in the patent data, showing a 244% increase in patent applications between 2016 and 2017, demonstrating how investment in a technology area can be seen reliably from an analysis of patent data.

“Alibaba stands out as the only e-commerce company listed in the top ten, with the other nine assignees being technology manufacturers.”

Patents can reveal exactly who is investing the most in a particular technology area. The top assignees listed for blockchain-related patents are Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Google, Alibaba, Samsung, Philips, and Nokia (Figure 2).

Many of these named are American technology companies. Alibaba (China) and Samsung (South Korea) stand out as the top Asian companies and Philips (Netherlands) and Nokia (Finland) as the top European companies for blockchain patent applications.

Alibaba stands out as the only e-commerce company listed in the top ten, with the other nine assignees being technology manufacturers. The number of granted patents (dark green) held by Alibaba is the lowest, but Figure 1 shows that China’s number of applications grew tremendously in 2017 and 2018.

Considering the time it takes for a patent to grant, many of these patents are likely still pending. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that Alibaba’s number of grants will soon match those of the rest of the assignees listed.

Time to grant

PatBase Analytics V3 simplifies viewing patent data from various angles—analysing a set of data in different ways offers the chance for new information to be revealed. Focusing on the US and China figures in Figure 3, it is instantly clear that US applications have a wider to grant period compared to China in the blockchain technology area.

This means that there is a larger variation in the number of days taken to grant from application to application. However, for blockchain-related applications in the US, the mean number of days to grant has been 1,242 days (median: 1,090 days). In China, the mean number of days to grant for blockchain patents has been 1,566 days (median: 1,615 days).

This is an average difference of over 300 days (almost a year) between the two jurisdictions. The US’s shorter time to grant may be due to the rising interest in this technology field, meaning these patent applications are prioritised and pushed through more quickly.

It is to be noted that the number of patents related to the technology area—155,750 applications analysed for the US figure and 48,740 applications analysed for the China figure—may impact this calculated average. Considering the variation in time to grant seen on the US box-and-whisker plot, the average is not necessarily a dependable expectation of time to grant.

For an accurate overview of pending applications, an analysis of legal status changes could be performed.

Considering the steep increase in the number of applications for blockchain in China in 2017 and 2018 shown in Figure 1, and the average time to grant in China for blockchain patents, it may well be predicted that a rising number of blockchain patents will be granted in 2021–2022 in China.

“By interrogating patent data over time, new insights may be gained about the future of a technical field.”

Competitive intelligence

The graphic visualisations of data generated on PatBase Analytics V3 help glean new intelligence that is achievable only by studying patents. Patents are a good indication of which technology areas are receiving investment, demonstrated in this context by the substantial rise in blockchain patent applications following the endorsement from China’s president in 2017.

Patent data can also identify the largest players within a market, indicating where there may be direct competition and patenting races within a technical field. By interrogating patent data over time, new insights may be gained about the future of a technical field, showing where and when, for example, more patents will be granted and for which areas it could be worthwhile to track legal status changes.

PatBase, an online global patent database created by Minesoft and RWS, was used to run the patent search for this article. Using Minesoft’s integrated PatBase Analytics V3 to generate the graphs, deeper insights into blockchain patent trends were gained and presented in a way that can be understood by patent experts and non-patent professionals alike.

The biggest update ever to PatBase has been newly released, including never-before-seen patent search and analysis functionality and speed.

Elizabeth Lam is an international marketing executive at Minesoft. She can be contacted at:

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