Interest in cryptocurrency and its underlying technology has steadily rose over the past several years. The final week of 2017 alone saw the debut of over a dozen new cryptocurrencies within the market. Moreover, Bitcoin’s explosive increase in value in 2017 from $1,000 to almost $20,000 has made “Bitcoin” and “cryptocurrency” household terms. The accelerating rate of creation of new currencies and the fluctuation in value of various existing currencies have provided investors with substantial profit opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the financial services industry is making significant investments in the underlying block-chain technology. From individual programmers to large fintech firms, there is a race to secure the intellectual property rights for all aspects of block-chain and cryptocurrency technology.
The block-chain technology functions to increase security and decrease inefficiencies regarding cyber transactions. The software accomplishes this by securely hosting a transaction between two individuals without the requirement of a third party to transfer and record the exchange of funds (i.e. banks, credit card companies, etc.). The transactions are then publicly memorialized in a distributed ledger as a link in the chain’s archive. At its core, the block-chain model is a peer-to-peer system; because of this, the software has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry by reducing the number of parties required to send and receive payments. This decentralized model is one of the characteristics that makes block-chain unique, and financial firms have recognized the tremendous value of the software.
As the value of the block-chain model became more apparent, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) was flooded with new patent applications concerning block-chain and cryptocurrencies. At the end of 2017, Bank of America, Mastercard, Paypal and Capital One were leading the field in research and development, and represented the top four patent holding entities in the realm of block-chain and cryptocurrencies. The primary technological focus of these top four firms has been financial forecasting, digital data processing and transmission of secure digital data. In fact, Bank of America was recently issued its latest patent from the USPTO, which outlined a cryptocurrency exchange system that would seamlessly convert one digital currency to another. It may be no coincidence that the top four firms leading research and development on block-chain are those that stand to lose the most from the elimination of third-parties in cyber transactions. It is important, at this point in block-chain’s development, that such firms secure a position on the new playing field if cryptocurrency does displace traditional transaction models.
Internet Data Usage
The sprint to secure intellectual property rights does not, however, solely focus on the current block-chain technology; firms are also looking ahead on how to improve the software and how to benefit from future developments and applications. Several firms are focusing specifically on the distributed ledger aspect of block-chain in order to create a personal virtual identity for each of the software’s users. This concept has significant potential to allow individuals to begin to profit off of their personal data. Currently, websites such as Google, Amazon and Facebook track individual’s internet usage and gain considerable value from their personal data with little to no benefit to the user. The creation of an online avatar that hoards this data in a ledger, and makes it available only with the user’s permission, could bring significance to an individual’s internet browsing data. Users could begin to charge companies a fee to gain limited access to this information, even in miniscule amounts. Cryptocurrency effortlessly weaves itself into the system because currencies like Bitcoin are divisible to the hundredth of a millionth degree. This divisibility makes it possible for you to extract value from as little as 0.00000001 of a Bitcoin for a company to see that you have been looking at Volkswagens on Craigslist all afternoon.
This virtual identity system may not be too far off. In 2017, the state of Illinois launched a block-chain pilot for the digitization of personal data, such as birth certificates. The system has the potential to be the framework for the digital identities discussed above, and could further establish an extraordinarily convenient method of sharing verified personal documents. Although this system immediately raises the question of cybersecurity in the minds of most, block-chain technology is, in fact, vastly more secure than our current systems.
In 2017, Equifax saw one of the largest cyber security breaches in history. The current method of storing millions of individuals’ personal data is piling it together on the same system, which is then encrypted and secured. The issue, as illustrated by Equifax, is that once the security mechanisms are breached, the cyber burglar then has access to the entirety of the stored data. Block-chain, however, stores each individual’s data separately in its own encrypted and secured space. If a hacker wished to steal data from a block-chain, they would be required to decrypt each of the individual’s data separately; in the case of Equifax, the hacker(s) would have been required to bypass 140,000,000 encryptions. For this reason, cyber security firms are becoming increasingly involved in block-chain technology as well.
The cyber security and financial services industries are not the only industries honing in on the cryptocurrency craze. It is also worth mentioning the flood of new applications from the mobile software market. The rapid origination rate of mobile applications, no matter how redundant or superfluous they may seem, is compelling United States intellectual property filings. Cryptocurrency mobile applications can provide a wide range of services for their users: market information through applications such as zTrader, Bitcoin Checker and Bitcoin Price IQ; portfolio services through Cryptonator, CoinDex and Mycelium; and trading platforms through Coinbase, CEX.IO and CoinCap. More significantly, many of the most popular websites which provide mobile application support are beginning to accept cryptocurrency as a payment method. Notably, online retailer Overstock.com, online dating service OkCupid.com, electronics retailer Newegg.com, and travel booking agency Expedia.com are among the firms now accepting bitcoin as payment for their services. Cryptocurrency also has the potential to transform the mobile gaming industry.
A dimension of mobile applications which has received a lot of negative publicity over the past few years is predatory in-app purchases. Many mobile gaming applications, which are typically marketed to children and teenagers, are free to download and play, but incentivize frequent micro-transactions from the user. These aptly dubbed “freemium” games result in cases of young users racking up a bill in the range of several hundreds of dollars, to their parent’s surprise. In fact, many applications offer purchases of in-game currencies up to $99 per transaction. This model may change, for better or for worse, with the rise of cryptocurrency. As discussed above, the Bitcoin is divisible to the hundredth of a millionth degree. The mobile gaming industry could see a transition from incentivizing young players to make frequent large transactions, to mobile games charging a fraction of a Bitcoin per minute (or second) of game time. The application would likely request access to your Bitcoin wallet and simply deduct fragments of a Bitcoin for as long as the game remains active. Whether this will be a welcome change is to be determined.
Cryptocurrency and block-chain technology are causing us to rethink our current financial and cyber-social systems. The characteristics that make block-chain unique—the decentralized model, distributed ledger, individual security, sense of virtual identity—are quickly being applied in new and innovative ways. The result is a surge in new intellectual property from forward thinking firms as we move into what may be an important technological shift for many of our country’s industries.
 Coindesk, Bitcoin (USD) Price, Coindesk (last visited Jan. 2, 2018) https://www.coindesk.com/price/.
 Jay Sharma, How Bitcoin Became a Game Changer Overnight, IPWatchdog (Dec. 4, 2017), http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2017/12/04/bitcoin-game-changer-overnight/id=90519/.
 Nikhilesh De, Bank of America Wins Patent for Crypto Exchange System (Dec. 7, 2017, 3:00 UTC), https://www.coindesk.com/bank-of-america-outlines-cryptocurrency-exchange-system-in-patent-award/; the Bank of America patent granted by the USPTO is identified by United States Patent No. 9,936,790.
 Michael Mainelli, Blockchain Could Help Us Reclaim Control of Our Personal Data, Harvard Business Review (Oct. 5, 2017), https://hbr.org/2017/10/smart-ledgers-can-help-us-reclaim-control-of-our-personal-data.
 Michael del Castillo, Illinois Launches Blockchain Pilor to Digitize Birth Certificates, Coindesk (Aug. 31, 2017, 23:00 UTC), https://www.coindesk.com/illinois-launches-blockchain-pilot-digitize-birth-certificates/.
 See Mainelli, supra note 5.
 See Mainelli, supra note 5.
 Mariam Nishanian, 8 surprising places where you can pay with bicoin, Business Insider (Oct. 11, 2017 6:00 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/bitcoin-price-8-surprising-places-where-you-can-use-2017-10/#expediacom-1.