Digital scarcity is an oxymoron. Unless it isn’t. Thanks to a recently funded startup called Ascribe, artists and writers can now create unique copies of their work that can be bought and sold and cannot, in theory, be duplicated.
The founders, Bruce Pon, Trent McConaghy, and Masha McConaghy have experience in banking, hardware, and curation. Masha, a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, curated at the Louvre and ran galleries in Europe and Canada.
The company raised $2 million in seed from Earlybird Venture Capital, Freelands Ventures, Digital Currency Group, and various angels.
The company describes itself as a “notary and timestamp for intellectual property and creative works.” This means you can upload a digital image and state it is the definitive version. You can loan it out to people or even transfer it to another user. For example, I uploaded this photo of a smoke detector and now I can download a certificate of authenticity – really a public key – and watch where the file appears on the Internet. Sure you can make a copy yourself and run around selling it, but presumably I’d know about it thanks to Ascribe. The system uses the blockchain to store and sign each image, creating an immutable record of its existence.
“We are working on securing copyright, giving creators a means to easily license and transfer their work and we’re swallowing the Internet to give creators visibility on what happens to their work,” said Pon. “The idea to use blockchain to allow artists to create digital scarcity germinated in mid-2013 when Trent and Masha asked ‘Can you own digital art, like you own bitcoin?’ Trent built a prototype in fall-2013. In mid-2014, we decided to leave our companies to start Ascribe full-time. Since then, we’ve been refining the technology and working with early users.”
The most interesting aspect of the technology is the company’s web crawler. They are able to search the web for copies of your photos and can let you know where they appear, allowing you to take action.
“We’ve set our development team to build the tools to crawl and index all digital artifacts on the internet and then perform a similarity search using web-scale machine learning. This means that within a reasonable amount of accuracy, we can tell you where your stuff has ended up,” he said.
Given the importance of IP and digital permanence Ascribe seems like a fascinating idea. While it might be a bit much for the average artist to take control of their IP with such granularity, it’s nice to know the system is available. That said, if anyone wants to buy a handsome photo of a smoke detector please contact me.