It's Not NBA Top Shot, Beeple Or a Tweet, But IBM Is About to Turn Patents Into NFTs

Andrew Kelly | Reuters
  • The patent industry has long struggled to identify value with only an estimated 2% to 5% of all patents equalling $180 billion in the market.
  • A new effort from intellectual property specialist IPwe, partnering with IBM's blockchain group, seeks to unlock $1 trillion or more in patents and other intellectual assets through turning them into non-fungible tokens.

If there's a way to take the fun out of the craze in non-fungible tokens, IBM may have just found it: patents.

But that doesn't mean news from the tech stalwart about using the blockchain to support NFTs for corporate patents isn't an important development in the digitization of just about everything.

Intellectual property specialist IPwe, which has been working with IBM for years on a blockchain solution for the patent industry, announced on Tuesday that it will begin representing patents as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), or digital assets, in a deal announced in conjunction with IBM.

IBM's blockchain group already works with corporate clients on tech efforts like tracking food supply chains using the blockchain. Now, it will provide the infrastructure for representing valuable patents as NFTs, and storing the information on a blockchain network.

"The tokenization of intellectual property (IP) will help position patents to be more easily sold, traded, commercialized or otherwise monetized and bring new liquidity to this asset class for investors and innovators," the companies said in a joint release.

The companies said the NFTs will be stored and shared on the IPwe Platform, hosted on IBM Cloud and powered by IBM Blockchain.

Taking enterprise IP to the blockchain

For IPwe, founded by Erich Spangenberg, who rose to prominence as a successful "patent troll" in the tech boom of previous decades, the NFT effort is just the latest move in its multi-year goal of taking the entire world of patents to the blockchain.

He has cited the fact that only 2% to 5% of intellectual property in the patent market is valued and there is likely a $1 trillion-plus opportunity if the patent market can find a better means of identifying, authenticating, and trading on the IP, even at the level of only 10% of the total market that exists.

"The lack of transparency is a huge problem, whether it is who owns or what is patent about, it is so complicated to transact in," Spangenberg said.

IPwe already offers the Global Patent Marketplace, a patent ecosystem to engage and transact, buy, license, finance, sell, research and commercialize patents, which it developed with IBM, where it was accepted to an early incubator program for blockchain projects, though Spangenberg tells CNBC it has not yet taken off as much as he had hoped, though the NFT moment may be a turning point.  

IPwe is betting that enterprises, governments, universities and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), as well as a broader set of financial institutions, insurers, enterprises and other patent stakeholders will use and exchange tokenized patents, with a trial of the new NFT system set for the second quarter.

"Enterprise wouldn't even look at blockchain a few years ago. ... We're now at that adoption phase. ... The first corporate asset is not a Dorsey tweet or Beeple image, but a corporate asset that starts to solve a business need," he said. If the NFT effort is successful, it will make IPwe existing global patent registry irrelevant, "consuming what we built in less than two years," he added.

But the underlying approach to using the blockchain and technology as a new way to embody the unique nature of a patent is the same. "A patent is unique. It was patent token and now just an NFT," Spangenberg said. "IP touches every enterprise. Most business units that are successful operate at 10% to 15% ROI and IP should be the same."

What patents share with artwork, sports highlights

Jason Kelley, general manager of global strategic partnerships at IBM Services, said the "digitization of everything," which has only intensified after the pandemic and broader acceptance of a new tech-centric way of life, is a perfect fit for the world of patents, where verification, validation and trust are so critical.

"If you can provide a platform that allows that to happen in an exchange of value it's exciting. The tokenization of patent opens up markets. ... You can value different patents and trade with greater capability, validity and trust," he said.

Kelley described the patent market as "sub-optimized."

IBM's own patent business has found it more difficult to monetize its war chest of IP in recent years, according to Bloomberg, though the current effort with IPwe is less about its own IP than enabling the digitization of all IP that exists across its clients using the blockchain and NFTs.

"We're sitting there thinking we're only scratching the surface at $180 billion. We are a global company with clients across many industries," he said.

Company officials declined to say whether IBM patents would be made into NFTs specifically.

Shyam Nagarajan, executive partner at IBM Blockchain Services, said the fact that each patent can have its own way of licensing the IP or transferring it makes it an interesting fit for NFTs and that is really an extension of the boom in coding smart contracts and contract terms, licensing terms, and income streams. "NFTs make it possible to get liquidity that is usually sitting on the corporate shelf or on the balance sheet," he said.

A patent is by its nature unique. It wouldn't be granted if it weren't deemed to be.

"A patent is one of a kind, like an artwork, sports highlights," said Kelley. "What are we talking about is the uniqueness of that one trading card or that one patent."

The factors that IBM seems in this market developing are the blockchain's ability to identify the assets, assign provenance and also tokenization.

"Those things overlap, whether food in a supply chain or shipment on a given container ship going from one place to another, or as recently as vaccines," Kelley said, noting the unique nature of a health credential. "Uniqueness we see as the differentiator in this thing called the blockchain. The NFT just drives home what we have been working on for years."

Spangenberg said it also could become a convenient way to verify a title between parties, "title insurance" that insures that the NFT is owned by the entity that is identified as the owner.

"Don't think of 'trade' as just buying or selling the patent (the NFT) – it now includes a really easy way to fractionalize ownership of a patents, do many more standard licenses and financing – the NFT and the tokens that sit under it (used, for example, to confirm licensing rights) make this much easier," he wrote in a follow-up email to CNBC. "Really the history of value. At some point, all the history of the patent will sit on the NFT – not just who owns it, but who licenses it, who is commercializing it, who is financing it — this info will be used by researchers, analysts, business and others to confirm value."

While most corporations have so far shied away from holding cryptocurrencies on the balance sheet, the central bank digital currency market is coming, and ultimately, the concept is applicable to physical assets and intellectual assets alike, and in any function where there are "people, processes and paperwork," Kelley said.

That can go beyond patents to property registrations and land rights and mineral rights. "A birth certificate for assets," Kelley said. "Whether the assets a company holds are long-time physical assets or something they exchange in a transaction ... it is similar in the fact that you are going to assign a value and then want to exchange that asset later. You want to make sure it is the same asset, it is unique."

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