More sectors than ever before are starting to utilise blockchain, European patent figures reveal. Patent attorney, David Grant, talks to Health Tech World about the growing interest in blockchain across the healthcare sector and the associated increase in patent activity
Patent attorney David Grant, a partner at the Intellectual property firm Marks & Clerk, says that blockchain technology – typically associated with cryptocurrency – is increasingly being explored for broader applications in other sectors, especially healthcare.
In 2018 the European Patent Office (EPO) published data showing a consistent rise in the number of European patent applications filed for blockchain-based interventions, so Grant looked at EPO applications published between 2011-2020 to see if this trend continued.
The findings reveal clear growth, accelerating sharply from 2017 onwards and show applicants are pursuing protection for a number of different use cases of blockchain technology.
“As you might expect, blockchain applications are still heavily biased towards cryptocurrency, however it was interesting to note the increasing use of blockchain in applications outside of the financial sphere, which is a more recent development,” Grant explains.
“In healthcare, for example, the results of our search include a number of patent applications directed towards management of medical records and patient data. Applications propose using blockchain to facilitate the sharing of patient records between different healthcare providers, for example.
“We have also seen applications directed towards the use of blockchain for logging physiological data captured by different sensors, allowing the data to be easily retrieved and studied by medical personnel. An associated area is in the development of medical devices, such as medical implants, that access the blockchain in order to document modifications made to the device in situ.
Grant also highlights supply chain management as a particularly important application for blockchain technology in healthcare where it can be used to track pharmaceutical supplies and whether they have been administered to patients.
The data from Marks & Clerk shows some of these new use areas, including healthcare, have only been explored very recently, and while patent numbers are relatively modest they suggest the start of a growth curve that is likely to continue.
For an invention to be granted a patent, it must be new, in other words, it cannot have previously been disclosed to the public prior to filing the application. It must also be inventive, meaning that it cannot be an obvious modification of an invention that has already been made public.
Grant believes there may be some companies exploring blockchain but have yet to seek a patent – and they may even be unaware that they have patentable material.
Grant explains: “Inventors can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that their inventions are obvious; a case of ‘anyone could have thought of it’. When actually they are doing themselves a disservice.
“The legal test for whether an invention is obvious is actually quite different from what people sometimes think, and so inventors might tell themselves it’s not worth filing a patent application when, in fact, they may have come up with something genuinely innovative that could be patented.”
Grant also says that some companies incorrectly assume that blockchain technology is not patentable due to the fact that both the UK Patents Act and the European Patent Convention exclude “programmes for computers” from patentability.
“In practice, this exclusion is interpreted a lot more narrowly than people think, and it is certainly possible to obtain patent protection for computer systems and computer-implemented methods.
“Blockchain-based inventions will, of course, be largely the computer and software-based, and it’s important to realise that this does not, by itself, rule them out from being patentable.”
As blockchain continues to see huge growth in patent activity across Europe, Grant says it is important that companies understand the options available for protecting their innovations, including patents.
“Having a robust patent with a broad scope of protection can be very valuable, as it can allow a company to exclude other parties from marketing a similar product or system, or allow the company to obtain royalty payments through licensing the patent to those other parties, for example,” Grant says.
“Where a company has developed a patentable invention and there is a commercial advantage in being able to stop others from exploiting the invention, it makes sense to pursue patent protection in order to secure that advantage.
“As patenting activity continues to increase in the field of blockchain, there is perhaps a risk of companies working in this field being “left behind” if they do not protect their innovations.”