As we approach 2020, distributed ledger technologies (DLT) appear likely to have a far-reaching, comprehensive impact on our global economy. But core components of that economy—intellectual property rights in particular—sit in tension with DLT. Copyright owners learned this lesson with the advent of BitTorrent. Patent owners will face similar threats from DLT-based computing platforms executing programs referred to as “smart contracts.” To date, less than 500 U.S. patents have issued with the term “blockchain” in a claim, and none appear to have been litigated. As such, many nuances of DLT patent enforcement have not yet manifested. Nonetheless, even a cursory review of current case law reveals the road to a decentralized utopia is laden with patent-law potholes.
As the blockchain avalanche continues, and ever-increasing numbers of blockchain-based patent applications seek issuance, savvy inventors and practitioners continue probing for patent-eligible space. Blockchain apps ultimately will face the same barriers as other software applications—key among them being new rules on subject matter eligibility. For those hoping to make it past such obstacles, performance-related refinements to blockchain technology may provide a safe harbor.
A recent order by the SEC relating to an initial coin offering (ICO) by Munchee Inc. dealt a blow to the common practice of making a distinction between “utility tokens” and “security tokens.” In doing so, the SEC seems to also reject what our colleagues Daniel N. Budofsky and Robert B. Robbins refer to as the “magic frog” approach, the belief that a token can begin life as a security token (i.e., a magic frog) but at the point that the application and ecosystem go “live,” the token will be transformed into a utility token (i.e., the magic frog becomes a prince) and any securities law restrictions will no longer apply. In their recent client alert, “The SEC’s Shutdown of the Munchee ICO,” they examine this issue in greater detail and explore ways in which it is still possible to carry out an ICO that’s in compliance with the Securities Act.