Walmart’s U.S. patent application involving blockchain technology is one of many blockchain-based patent applications that have been filed by large companies smitten with blockchain technology.  Published May 17, 2018, but filed November 16, 2017, the application is based on a provisional patent filing in November 2016.  In its application, Walmart seeks to patent a blockchain-based marketplace where buyers and resellers of products can leverage blockchain technology’s immutability and security to record characteristics of retail goods and the transactions involving those goods.  The application has not yet been examined, and must undergo prosecution which is highly likely to change the scope of any patent ultimately granted, if at all. Until allowed, it is difficult to predict the impact any patent granted from this application may have on competitors and industries seeking to similarly leverage blockchain-based marketplaces.

The blockchain technology originally used to code the Bitcoin blockchain is not patentable because it is not actually “new.”  However, customized variations of the original Bitcoin code and other decentralized systems that employ similar technologies may be patentable.  General ledger methods and hardware to record and track characteristics and transactions relating to good and services are ancient.  Even computer-aided ledger methods and hardware (e.g., centralized databases) are decades old.   Blockchains, although more recently developed, have generally been known and practiced since the inception of the Bitcoin blockchain’s open, albeit pseudonymous, ledger in 2009.  Accordingly, the maturity of blockchain technology generally renders the basic Bitcoin blockchain unable to pass the novelty and nonobviousness requirements for patentability.  Nonetheless, blockchain technology is being increasingly customized to specific uses, some of which may qualify for patent protection.

Blockchains are digital databases that use cryptography to secure records, or “blocks,” of information.  Each block is timestamped and includes a record of the blocks that preceded it.  The database is decentralized over a network of computers and the information in each block, including the historical information, may only be tampered with if an actor gains control of 51% of the computers in the network.  This ensures the integrity of information on blockchains by making hacking economically inefficient and extremely difficult.  Blockchains can not only store basic information, such as a record of transactions of digital money like Bitcoin, but can also use the information to function as a computer and perform tasks.  These automated processes are commonly known as “smart contracts.”  Smart contracts and the security and immutability of blockchains facilitate large-scale automation and remove the need for trusted third parties to verify transfers and ownership of goods and information.

Blockchain technology is promising.  Corporations like Walmart are racing to file patents covering specific blockchain structures and applications to secure competitive advantages going forward.  Additionally, corporations may file blockchain patents as marketing ploys to create buzz for their business, especially because blockchain infrastructures are difficult to scale for commercial operability.  Amid the hype and hysteria, it is important to understand what a blockchain patent covers and how to protect your company’s proprietary rights.

On June 14, 2018, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance Director, William Hinman, gave a speech titled “Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic).”  This speech provides additional insight into the SEC’s view as to whether cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) are securities.  Here is a summary:

In his speech, Hinman explains that ICOs typically involve passive investors who purchase tokens in hopes that a promoter builds a successful network.  He posits that the networks involved are rarely functional, and that the token purchase “looks a lot more like a bet on the success of the enterprise and not a purchase of something used to exchange for goods or services on the network.”  These circumstances, combined with token marketing efforts that “are rarely narrowly targeted to token users,” are indicators that an ICO is a securities transaction.

ICO issuers have recently tried to avoid their tokens being classified as securities by labeling them “utility tokens” and arguing that the tokens are for consumptive use.  Hinman directly addresses this practice, stating that labeling something a “utility token” does not prevent it from being a security. While he conceded that tokens by themselves and tokens purchased for consumption only are likely not securities, he emphasized that the “economic substance of the transaction” determines whether a token sale is a securities transaction.  Specifically, the speech focused on the “investment strategy” used, and states that “virtually any assets” can be securities “provided the investor is reasonably expecting profits from the promoter’s efforts.”

To support the above concept that securities can be broadly defined to include an “investment strategy,”  Hinman explains that, as outlined in Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., the Howey test “is not static and does not strictly inhere to the instrument.”  The non-static interpretation of Howey is critical because it indicates that tokens which start as securities can lose that designation over time as a token’s network becomes “sufficiently decentralized.”  Hinman clarified that a security-token loses its status as a security when it becomes decentralized enough that purchasers “no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts,”  noting that, as a system becomes increasingly decentralized, “material information asymmetries recede” and the “ability to identity an issuer or promoter to make the requisite disclosure [required in securities offerings] becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”  This interpretation rewards systems that prioritize decentralization with a shield from securities laws, but creates ambiguity regarding the requirements for a network to become “sufficiently decentralized.”

In light of the above, Hinman finds that Bitcoin and Ethereum’s native token, Ether, are not securities because they are decentralized enough that the efforts of others are not a “key determining factor” in whether an investment in Bitcoin or Ether is successful.  The speech adds that applying the disclosure regime of the federal securities laws to Bitcoin and Ethereum transactions would “add little value”, and that, “[o]ver time, there may be other sufficiently decentralized networks and systems where regulating the tokens or coins that function on them as securities may not be required.”

The first two weeks in March 2018 have seen a number of developments with respect to the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the United States.

Regulation of Online Cryptocurrency Trading Platforms

On March 7, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a release addressing the regulation of online trading platforms (or exchanges) on which investors have bought and sold digital assets, including coins or tokens sold in initial coin offerings (“ICOs”).  Consistent with prior SEC articulated positions, the SEC stated that many of these tokens sold in an ICO meet the definition of a “security” and accordingly these trading platforms on which ICO tokens trade should register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or alternative trading system unless exempt from registration.  In its release, the SEC expressed its concern that many of these trading platforms may appear to investors as SEC-regulated exchanges, but are not and do not meet the regulatory and listing standards of a registered exchange. In light of this, in its release, the SEC listed a series of questions that investors should ask before trading assets on an online trading platform.  These include, but are not limited to, asking if:  (i) is the platform registered as a national securities exchange or an ATS with the SEC?; (ii) is there information in FINRA’s BrokerCheck ® about any individuals or firms operating the platform?; (iii) how does the platform select digital assets for trading?; (iv) what are the trading protocols?; (v) how are prices set on the platform?; (vi) how does the platform safeguard users’ trading and personal identifying information?; (vii) what are the platform’s protections against cybersecurity threats, such as hacking or intrusions?; and (viii) does the platform hold users’ assets?  If so, how are these assets safeguarded?  For a complete list of these questions and a copy of this SEC release see SEC Release.

Money Transmitter Rules Apply to Initial Coin Offerings

In a letter published March 6, 2018 by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), which had previously been sent on February 13, 2018 to Senator Ron Wyden of the Senate Committee on Finance, FinCEN reiterated that in combatting the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) and illicit financing of criminal activity, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and anti-money laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations applied to virtual currency exchanges and administrators that are based in the United States or that do business in whole or substantial part in the United States. These would include “a developer that sells convertible virtual currency, including in the form of … ICO coins or tokens, in exchange for another type of value that substitutes for currency….” FinCEN indicated that these exchanges and administrators would be considered a money transmitter who would have to be register with FinCEN as a money service business (“MSB”) with an established written AML compliance program designed to mitigate money laundering risks. These AML/CFT compliance programs would include filing of BSA suspicious activity and currency reports, maintaining records for certain transactions over some monetary threshold and obtaining customer identification information. The letter also clarified that in the case of an ICO that is structured as a sale of a security or derivative, the participants in the ICO could be subject to regulation by the SEC or the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (“CFTC”).  In such cases, the SEC or CFTC AML/CFT requirements would apply.  Companies and exchanges involved in ICOs should consult legal counsel to clarify and satisfy their respective AML/CFT obligations.

U.S. District Court  Rules that the CFTC has Authority to Regulate Cryptocurrencies Not Involving Derivatives

In a Memorandum and Decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued on March 8, 2018, Judge Jack Weinstein issued a ruling as to the authority of the CFTC to prosecute a fraud case that it had brought against Patrick Kerry McDonnell, the operator of a cryptocurrency business.  Defendant McDonnell was alleged to have “operated a deceptive and fraudulent virtual currency scheme” whereby his company solicited investments from investors to assist them in purchasing and trading Bitcoin and Litecoin, but instead misappropriated their funds.  In his ruling, Judge Weinstein, after discussing the definition of a commodity under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”) and relying, in part, on a 2015 CFTC administrative ruling that cryptocurrencies were commodities, held that “virtual currencies can be regulated by CFTC as a commodity,” and that, in the absence of federal rules, the CEA permitted the CFTC in a fraud case to exercise its jurisdiction over cryptocurrencies that did not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts.

Judge Weinstein ruled that the CFTC could proceed prosecuting the case against the defendant and granted a preliminary injunction barring the defendant from further engagement in cryptocurrency investments as the case continues. For a copy of the case, see CFTC v. McDonnell.

New York entrepreneurs in the virtual currency space must be careful to follow New York’s licensing requirements enacted under Financial Services Law Sections 102, 104, 201, 206, 301, 302, 309, and 408. Under the new regulations issued by the New York State Department of Financial Services, a business that engages in “Virtual Currency Business Activity” must be licensed by the New York State Department of Financial Services.  A business is engaged in Virtual Currency Business Activity if it:

  1. receives virtual currency for transmissions or transmits virtual currency;
  2. stores, holds, or maintains custody or control of virtual currency on behalf of others;
  3. buys and sells virtual currency;
  4. exchanges or converts something of value, into virtual currencies; or
  5. controls, administers, or issues a virtual currency.

However, businesses chartered under New York Banking Law and “approved by the superintendent to engage in Virtual Currency Business Activity,” as well as “merchants and consumers” that use virtual currencies for investment purposes or to buy and sell goods or services are exempt from the licensing requirement.

The license application fee to register as a business engaged in Virtual Currency Business Activity is $5,000.00 and is nonrefundable.  The application must include:

  1. the exact name of the applicant, including any doing business as name;
  2. a list of all of the applicant’s affiliates and an organization chart illustrating the relationship among the applicant and such affiliates;
  3. a list of, and detailed biographical information for, each individual applicant and each director, principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant;
  4. a background report prepared by an independent investigatory agency for each individual applicant, and each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable;
  5. for each individual applicant; for each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable; and for all individuals to be employed by the applicant who have access to any customer funds, whether denominated in fiat currency or virtual currency: (i) a set of completed fingerprints, or a receipt indicating the vendor (which vendor must be acceptable to the superintendent) at which, and the date when, the fingerprints were taken, for submission to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; (ii) if applicable, such processing fees as prescribed by the superintendent; and (iii) two portrait-style photographs of the individuals measuring not more than two inches by two inches;
  6. an organization chart of the applicant and its management structure;
  7. a current financial statement for the applicant and each principal officer, principal stockholder, and principal beneficiary of the applicant, as applicable, and a projected balance sheet and income statement for the following year of the applicant’s operation;
  8. a description of the proposed, current, and historical business of the applicant;
  9. details of all banking arrangements;
  10. all written policies and procedures required by, or related to, the requirements of this part;
  11. an affidavit describing any pending or threatened administrative, civil, or criminal action, litigation, or proceeding before any governmental agency, court, or arbitration tribunal against the applicant or any of its directors, principal officers, principal stockholders, and principal beneficiaries, as applicable;
  12. verification from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance that the applicant is compliant with all New York State tax obligations in a form acceptable to the superintendent;
  13. if applicable, a copy of any insurance policies maintained for the benefit of the applicant, its directors or officers, or its customers; and
  14. an explanation of the methodology used to calculate the value of virtual currency in fiat currency; and

Businesses operating in the virtual currency space, that are not exempt from these new regulations, must ensure that they comply with these new licensing requirements. Businesses interested in pursuing a New York virtual currency license should consult with legal counsel.