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R3 to Open Source Corda; Patent Application Still Being Pursued for “Genuinely New” Distributed Ledger Approach


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R3 CEV, a leading financial services consortium, has announced its intention to open source its Corda distributed ledger technology via the Hyperledger Project—in which it is a major member—despite its plans to patent Corda.

According to a spokesperson for R3, the patent application and open source plans represent “complementary strategies.” While the open source route “provides a royalty-free license to use the open sourced software, it doesn’t moot the utility of any underlying patent,” adds the spokesperson.

Even as R3 was progressing in an open source direction, it announced in August its plans to patent Corda, driven by the determination that its offering is “quite unlike any other distributed ledger platform that currently exists,” according to a company blog post written by CTO Richard Brown.

Continues Brown: “Corda is a distributed ledger platform designed and built from the ground up for the recording and automation of legal agreements between identifiable parties. It is heavily influenced by the requirements of the financial industry, but we believe the community will find the underlying architecture will lend itself to a broad range of applications.”

It has seemingly been R3’s intention to open source its software from the commencement of its development. Indeed, Brown, who pointed to an open source future for Corda in a blog post published in April, says its mission from the outset was: “To establish the architecture for an open, enterprise-grade, shared platform for the immutable recording of financial events and execution of logic … Our mandate, from our member banks, was that whatever base platforms we selected, built or adopted had to be open.”

Through various company blog posts, R3 has been careful not to characterize Corda as an implementation of blockchain technology. Corda, says Brown, is “a new technology for establishing and maintaining consensus between parties who don’t trust each other … [Corda represents an approach that is] genuinely new in this space and it’s something that is massively relevant to the financial system.”

According to Brown, consensus addresses “what amounts to the 21st century’s ‘paperwork crisis’ … the tens of billions of dollars spent annually maintaining and managing the duplicated records that each firm maintains about the same deals. The same information about a deal is recorded multiple times across these parties, and in situations where a centralized solution can’t be deployed, which is in lots of places, small armies are required to ensure that these disparate records agree with each other, get updated correctly and in synchrony—and deal with the issues when they don’t.”

Because the Corda design team—including crypto and Bitcoin veterans James Carlyle, Ian Grigg and Mike Hearn—was driven by a business requirement and not a technology bias, “we ended up with something quite distinct, something we believe is singularly well-suited to a wider variety of financial-services use-cases, and something adapted to the practical reality that the industry is regulated and some rules simply aren’t going to change overnight.”

One key feature of Corda’s design, which some other distributed ledger offerings also provide, is that data pertaining to transactions need only be distributed to authorized parties to the transaction, and not to all participants in the ledger.

One broad reason for R3’s open source approach is a wish for Corda to become an industry standard, according to an exclusive article published via Reuters on October 20, which served as the announcement of R3’s plans. Moreover, it is R3’s wish that it is embraced by industries outside of financial services.

Quoted in the Reuters article, R3 chief engineer Carlyle said: "If we have one platform with lots of products on top, then we get something that's more like the internet, where we still get innovation but we can still communicate with each other."

Corda is due to be submitted to the Hyperledger Project on November 30 as a proposal for incubation status—essentially to become an official development project, a decision which will be made by the project’s Technical Steering Committee. The committee comprises 11 members, including R3’s Brown, and representatives from IBM, Intel, DTCC and Digital Asset Holdings.

Corda could be destined to join other Hyperledger distributed ledger projects in incubation, such as the initial Fabric development—with major initial contributions from IBM and Digital Asset Holdings—and Sawtooth Lake, submitted by Intel.

What happens next for Corda is unclear, since the Hyperledger Project, which is administered by the Linux Foundation, is community driven. R3 may continue to develop the code to make it suitable for production environments, but whether it becomes a popular focus of attention from other developers is yet to be seen.

For its part, the Hyperledger Project is comfortable running parallel distributed ledger projects. The project’s executive director, Brian Behlendorf, recently described its mission as providing an “umbrella” to support multiple ”software developer communities building open source blockchain and related technologies,” suggesting that the “most valuable role the Hyperledger Project can play is to serve as a trusted source of innovative, quality-driven open source software.”

R3’s dual licensing and intellectual property direction is not unique in either the general enterprise software space or the more focused distributed ledger world. Fellow Hyperledger Project member Digital Asset Holdings has not only contributed code to the Fabric development, but has announced plans to open source a smart contracts language, while also applying for a patent for a “Digital Asset Intermediary Electronic Settlement Platform.”

Meanwhile, Chain, which has built a proprietary blockchain platform in conjunction with a number of development partners, including Nasdaq and Visa, has recently opened sourced a developer version of its platform in an effort to see it more widely adopted.

R3 has not yet given much detail about its fuller software development strategy, apart from providing an overview for Project Concord, which builds upon Corda to deliver a fully functioned platform for financial applications. It is possible that, like Chain, it will choose to open source one version of Corda to build its popular appeal, while also offering other versions, or perhaps optional modules providing value-added functionality, under commercial licenses.