The intellectual property (IP) industry is overdue for a shakeup. For decades, individuals and companies seeking to protect their ideas have been forced to navigate an expensive and confusing regulatory environment that moves at a snail’s pace. The reason? A reliable alternative to the traditional, government-centric IP paradigm simply has not existed. IdeaBlock is out to fill this vacuum by leveraging blockchain technology, the same nascent technology that sits at the heart of Fluree. Using IdeaBlock, a user can instantly obtain defensive legal protection for any idea.
The Old Way
The traditional systems for protecting IP reside exclusively in government. In the United States, for instance, traditional IP rights are administered through the federal courts and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a federal agency in the Department of Commerce. As the workload managed by the USPTO has grown over the last few decades, so has the cost associated with obtaining a patent. In 2017 the average cost of obtaining a United States patent had ballooned to about $60,000. Absent from this figure is the unquantifiable opportunity cost associated with the protracted timeline applicants must endure before gaining formal patent approval. Simply stated: the time, cost, and constantly changing legal and regulatory frameworks awaiting applicants dissuade participation in the idea protection process, generally. This reality is just not good for business.
Making matters worse for IP producers, if you are able to overcome the barriers to entry and obtain some form of traditional IP, defending it in federal court will typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions — regardless of whether the underlying IP being asserted against them comes in the form of a patent, copyright, trademark, or misappropriated trade secret. The same rings true for the party being sued in these infringement suits. With these figures at play, it is easy to see how the current system places IP creators into quite a challenging predicament when they try to determine whether they should dedicate the investment required to fully protect an idea well before its market viability is known.
Traditional IP systems also lack a predictable way for individuals and businesses to prove that they were first to create, use, and/or publicly disclose an idea. The years of sending yourself a description of an idea in the mail, hand-dating lab notebooks, or screenshotting emails to prove date of invention ended years ago when the United States joined the rest of the world in becoming a first-to-file country. Even during the era when these procedures were theoretically enforceable, however, they were not consistently viewed by federal courts as reliable forms of evidence for proving time because they could always be altered — or even created wholesale — on a whim. There simply has never been a way for inventors and businesses to leverage technology to provably establish time in an intuitive, objective, and economical manner.
The IdeaBlock Way
IdeaBlock solves the systemic problems associated with traditional forms of IP protection by leveraging blockchain technology, including Fluree, to prove an inventor was first to have an idea — instantly and forever. This provides IdeaBlock users with both the short-term benefit of initial defensive protection for their ideas, but also the substantial long-term benefit of shrinking the probability of these users being swept into future lawsuits involving their ideas, each of which routinely cost millions of dollars to defend.
So how exactly does IdeaBlock create this upside for its users? Unlike the reactive protection afforded to copyright, trademark, and patent holders (allowing them to sue others who infringe their traditional forms of IP), IdeaBlock provides proactive protection (blocking traditional IP holders from suing the user) by utilizing a principle that is inherent to all IP systems throughout the world: the earliest bird gets the worm. Put simply, if you can prove that you were first, you win in most situations. And this is precisely the bulletproof corroboration that IdeaBlock provides for user ideas that are truly novel. Behind a suite of user-friendly, intuitive software tools, IdeaBlock leverages proprietary technology to establish when its users conceived of an idea (and if necessary, when they made the idea public) in a manner that does not rely on a court believing any individual or company (including IdeaBlock) to prove its veracity. Instead, IdeaBlock relies on something far more objective — something that is immune to forgetfulness, forgery, or manipulation: mathematics.
Let’s take a look under the hood by exploring a couple of use-cases — namely, how IdeaBlock protects user ideas against third-party patent suits and how it protects ideas that users choose to hold as trade secrets.
Defending Ideas Against Third-Party Patents
When a patent is used to sue someone for infringement, the alleged infringer can end the lawsuit if they can prove that the patent itself is invalid — that it should never have been issued in the first place. But to do this, the alleged infringer must prove that someone other than the patent holder publicly disclosed the idea before the patent application was filed. IdeaBlock uses Fluree to provide this proof for its users using the three-step process shown in the diagram below.
- In Step 1, an IdeaBlock user selects one or more files that describe the idea (documents, videos, photos, or any other kind of file), enters additional description, and uploads the files and description to IdeaBlock with a click of a button.
- Next, in Step 2, IdeaBlock creates an idea-specific cryptographic hash that provably represents the idea files and description, saves the hash in Fluree, and tethers the hash to the same blockchains that power Bitcoin and Litecoin, undeniably proving the existence of the idea and timestamping it to indicate the moment it was uploaded.
- Finally, at Step 3, IdeaBlock publishes the idea to its public-facing, searchable idea database — and at random times every day forward, also places proof that the idea is available to the public at those random times by placing the hash of the idea-specific website on Fluree, Bitcoin, and Litecoin.
The benefit of provable time is powerful in the context of patent defense. By performing this simple three-step process, IdeaBlock users have the evidence they need to invalidate any third-party patent that might rear its ugly head years in the future. So instead of worrying about coming up with $60,000 for every idea they would like to protect, IdeaBlock users can concentrate on building and strengthening their business with the peace-of-mind that they will be able to keep their products on the shelves years down the line instead of fighting in federal court to do so.
Trade Secret Protection with IdeaBlock
Trade secret law is pretty simple, really — instead of asking the government to give them a patent in exchange for making their idea public, some inventors choose to protect the idea themselves by keeping it secret. The downside, of course, this that this protection only lasts as long as the inventor (or business) can keep it secret, but the upside being that the idea is protected for as long as they are able to keep it secret. But what if someone else obtains a patent on the secret idea and then sues the original trade secret holder?
It turns out that the law allows trade secret holders a safe haven, called “prior use rights,” against these patent infringement suits if the trade secret holder can prove with clear and convincing evidence that they used this secret idea before the third-party patent application was filed. But in practice, this sort of evidence has been difficult for trade secret holders to create because of its inherent paradox: for others to validate possession of an idea typically requires disclosure of the idea to others, an act that, by definition, destroys the secret. In a key aspect of the platform, IdeaBlock is able to provide this evidence, using blockchain to validate the existence of the idea at a point in time without requiring disclosure of the actual trade secret. Specifically, IdeaBlock software creates this evidence using the steps presented in the diagram below.
- In Step 1, an IdeaBlock user seeking to establish prior use rights first selects files to fully describe their trade secret, then hashes the idea files client-side so that the files do not leave their system and sends the hash to IdeaBlock.
- In Step 2, IdeaBlock receives the relevant file hash and inserts it into several blockchains to obtain cryptographically secure timestamps, each of which undeniably proves tha6t the user was in possession of the idea before the third party filed the patent being asserted.
- And at Step 3 IdeaBlock does not make the idea available to the general public — which is more of a difference from the patent defense tools introduced above than an affirmative step itself and highlights the fact that the idea files are not made public and only kept with the user. In other words, through this process, the user can undeniably prove that they were in possession of the idea at a previous point in time without disclosing the idea itself to a third party — including IdeaBlock.
A New Class of IP
Leveraging the immutability of Fluree, IdeaBlock creates a new class of defensive IP rights that an inventor or business can create for itself instantly and for a price that is orders of magnitude less than traditional forms of IP protection. With this new right, the user can block anyone else from obtaining or enforcing traditional forms of IP on their ideas, ensuring that they will never be barred from practicing their invention and making money off of it — because nobody else will ever hold the traditional forms of IP required to bar them from doing so.
IdeaBlock believes it will soon be an essential tool for enterprise tech company legal departments, startups, and individual inventors, providing necessary defensive IP protection to complement the offensive IP protection provided by traditional forms of IP. IdeaBlock is currently in beta and will be rolling out their first fully supported enterprise version in the coming weeks. Visit their homepage at ideablock.io for more information.
Eli Sheets is an attorney and entrepreneur with over a decade of experience as an IP professional. Over that time, he has written and prosecuted hundreds of patent applications for inventions in a wide range of technology classes. Before practicing IP law, Eli studied electrical and computer engineering at MIT and UW-Madison and began his professional career as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. After gaining valuable experience as a patent examiner, Eli earned his law degree with honors from the University of New Hampshire School of Law (Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property). After graduation, Eli served as an IP attorney at large general practice firms in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis before founding IdeaBlock in 2018.