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Blockchain technology and intellectual property ownership

Blockchain based technology has experienced impressive growth over the past five years. It went from being ignored or unheard of, to becoming a buzz phrase in the innovation and securing the technological world.

While before it was researched only by startups, today it is at the top of the agenda of major multinational companies including the likes of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and IBM, as well as all leading fintech firms. It is fair to say that blockchain technology has demonstrated its potential to shake up the financial world, with as wide a revolution as that experienced when the internet came to be.

It is therefore for good reason that the fintech industry and governments are jumping on the bandwagon to capitalise on the technology and pioneer its potential. But it is not only the financial world that can benefit. With its relatively low cost of maintenance, increased transparency, lessened administrative burden and resilience to fraud in intellectual property ownership, blockchain technology applications are endless and far more radical and diverse, ranging from healthcare to the fashion industry, from solar energy to management of intellectual property rights.


Blockchain use for intellectual property rights management

There are many countries where copyright does not mandate registration and protection is automatic upon creation of an original qualifying work. This means that there is often no adequate means for authors to catalogue and time stamp their works, making ownership hard to prove. Moreover, it is quite difficult for authors to see who is using their work, and equally challenging for third parties using a work to know who to seek a license from. This makes it almost impossible for authors to stop infringements or to maximise the return, be it financial or other, on their works.

Blockchain technology can play a crucial role to mitigate this situation by providing clarity to copyright authors, owners and users. By registering their works via blockchain, authors could end up with tamper-proof evidence of ownership. This is because a blockchain transaction is immutable, so once a work has been registered to a blockchain, that information can never (or it would be overwhelmingly difficult for some to) be lost or changed. In theory, third parties could also use the blockchain to see the complete chain of ownership of a work, including any licences, sub-licences and assignments.

Platforms like Binded (previously known as Blockai), are already making use of blockchain technology for this purpose allowing photographers with a tool to import their photos to the service to claim copyright on them. This is done either through their internet browser or using the service’s integration with Instagram and Twitter.

Once the photos are uploaded onto Binded, a “unique fingerprint” of every uploaded photo is created which is recorded to the Bitcoin blockchain. In addition, Binded runs online scans to automatically identify copyright infringements of photos uploaded on its platform. In case of dispute, the Binded permanent record would constitute proof of ownership.


Proof of Existence is another intellectual property platform. In this instance it uses Blockchain technology to demonstrate document ownership without revealing the information it contains, providing proof that a document was authored at a particular time. The good thing about this service is that the actual document is not stored online and therefore avoids the risk of unwanted publication and distribution.

After the user anonymously uploads the document (at a nominal fee), a hash of the document (which can be in various formats) is generated as part of the transaction and can be used as proof of ownership should an issue of authorship or dating arise. What’s more, by inserting a cryptographic hash of the document in the blockchain transaction, the block timestamp becomes the document’s timestamp and can later be used to certify that the data existed at that time.


Legal acceptance

The question raised when it comes to applying blockchain technology and management of intellectual property rights, is how quickly the EU and international legal systems will adopt this new type of public validation and identity. With expert testimony, the purely mathematical strength of a blockchain certificate can be presented in court everywhere. The main concern, however, is that the application is also not yet widespread enough to prescribe legal validation. 

Thankfully many countries are already taking the necessary steps, having recognised the convenience of the blockchain as a public registry. Legislators in many countries such as the US, Sweden, Japan, Brazil, UK and Dubai are pushing forward several initiatives to acknowledge evidence and records based on blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.

The EU is heading in the same direction, and the current eIDAS regulation (an EU regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market) already prohibits courts from denying the legal admissibility of timestamps as evidence on sole grounds that the timestamp does not meet the more stringent requirements of an EU-qualified timestamp.

For sure, the use of blockchain technology for intellectual property rights management is set to intensify exponentially in the immediate term. There is a very simple explanation: governments and public bodies are themselves extremely interested in deploying blockchain-based solutions to manage all kind of public registries, with Intellectual Property rights being only one application: from land to company records, from healthcare to identity, possible applications of the technology are infinite.


How Grant Thornton can help

Applied knowledge is the key. Knowing the technology and being aware of innovation is the beginning; applying it to every day routines to garner efficiency is the way forward. Grant Thornton is constantly pursuing excellence through innovation and blockchain technology provides immense opportunity. Several Grant Thornton firms around the globe have embarked on audacious projects and entered into exciting partnerships with many startups of the blockchain ecosystem, with the aim of leveraging this knowledge to provide our customers with the best advisory and technical consultancy services.

Our local and global team of experienced business, technology and regulatory leaders can help you identify how blockchain can benefit your organization and how to rapidly move these initiatives forward.

In addition, our team of specialists in Malta provide the full gamut of services related to technology as well as intellectual property rights. The exploitation, protection and enforcement of IP rights, especially in high-tech companies, is a key element of a company’s measure of success or otherwise. Whether a start-up, an SME or a multinational, no business has the luxury of ignoring intangible capital and the importance of IP rights accumulated in its goodwill and in reputational aspects.

Our team will help you develop the best possible strategy to actively protect your patents, trademarks, design or know-how, and also ensure you have passive protection against third party intellectual property rights – so you can enhance your competitive edge.

Additional services include:

  • Software licensing contracts;
  • Software development agreements;
  • Transfer of intellectual property rights and internet domain-names;
  • Intellectual property escrow agreements;
  • Handling, processing and assignment of customer databases;
  • Registration of trademarks, patents and designs in Malta and within the EU