FOR fans of bitcoin, a digital currency, the year got off to a volatile start. On January 5th one bitcoin changed hands for nearly $1,150—almost as much as the record set three years ago. It has since dropped by 33%. Elsewhere in the land of monetary bits, things move more slowly but trouble is brewing: a potential patent war looms over the blockchain, a distributed ledger that authenticates and records every bitcoin transaction.

Heated fights over intellectual property are nothing new in promising technology markets. But given that the blockchain is expected to shake up everything from the way precious diamonds are safeguarded to the way shares are traded, the legal fights could be especially fierce.

On the face of it, the blockchain does not lend itself easily to staking out intellectual-property claims. Bitcoin’s creator, known only by his pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto, published a paper about his invention, coded the first implementation and then disappeared—meaning that the core of the technology is now part of the public domain and only important additions and variations could be patented. And the blockchain’s components are widely known. In America court decisions as well as a new law on the granting of patents make it difficult to claim ownership for such financial innovations.

This hasn’t stopped firms from trying to get patent…Continue reading