Bank of America Corp. may not be willing to help customers invest in bitcoin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t plowing into the technology underlying the cryptocurrency.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based lender has applied for or received at least 43 patents for blockchain, the ledger technology that is used for verifying and recording transactions and is at the heart of virtual currencies. It is the largest number among major banks and technology companies, according to a study by EnvisionIP, a New York-based law firm that specializes in analyses of intellectual property.
“Based on what’s publicly out there, the technology sector hasn’t embraced blockchain as much as the financial services industry,” Maulin Shah, managing attorney for EnvisionIP, said in an interview.
International Business Machines Corp., which has targeted blockchain and artificial intelligence for future growth, tied with Mastercard Inc. for second on the list, with 27 each.
Bank of America has refrained from offering bitcoin futures contracts and its Merrill Lynch unit told employees not to offer brokerage clients access to one of the few financial instruments directly holding bitcoin. Mark Pipitone, a B of A spokesman, said in an email that the bank has 48 blockchain-related patents and applications. He declined to comment further.
Historically less active in pursuing patents, banks in the past two years have become more aggressive, working with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to educate examiners about financial services. One goal was to limit patents that could be used against them; the other was to ensure they’d be able to get the patents they want.
Shah’s study, published last week, identified 1,045 patents or applications related to blockchain filed in the U.S. by 478 owners. Almost 60 percent were filed by what Shah called “blockchain-specific companies,” meaning startups like cryptocurrency exchanges.
FMR LLC’s Fidelity Investments, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Accenture Plc also were in the top 10, as was Coinbase Inc. and Dell Inc. Two of the biggest holders, 405 Technologies SA and World Award Foundation, weren’t easily linked to any known companies, Shah said.
Blockchain technology could reshape the global financial system as banks look to use it to speed trading, improve record-keeping and simplify back-end functions. Mastercard, the world’s second-largest payments network behind Visa Inc., is testing the technology, Chief Executive Officer Ajay Banga said on a conference call with analysts in October.
Blockchain is geared toward “manipulation of data, and that’s why it’s really taken off in the payment-processing industry,” Shah said. “This is only going to increase.”
Software companies that deal with large amounts of data, like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Inc., haven’t received many patents related to blockchain. That may change, because applications are made public 18 months after they are filed.