By all accounts, we appear to be in the early stages of a classic “hype cycle” about the potential for uses of blockchain technology. Careful analysts need to filter out that noise, but, as with all technology bubbles, there are blockchain skeptics, and blockchain enthusiasts.
I am somewhere in the middle — currency speculation, in my opinion, is nothing but a big distraction; it is improving information services that I am interested in. And I’m most interested in technologies that show promise in bringing more accuracy and efficiency to the worlds of copyright and licensing.
So, does blockchain technology show meaningful promise for real-world copyright and licensing applications? Let’s take a closer look.
What are blockchains, and why should I care?
What is a blockchain? Why are so many startups and techno-pundits going on and on about it? What sort of problems can it solve, and who has these problems? And, more importantly, what is it good for (in the sense of being useful)?
Simply and practically put, in this context a block is a unique number, derived mathematically through computing. This number is applied for a single use, which typically would be as the root identifier for a digital work of any sort. Examples of a work protected by such a blockchain would include a document (PDF) or the source code for a program, or a digital image, or anything in a fixed form represented in ones and zeroes.
Once established as the root identifier, any changes to the digital work are written — more numbers — into the blockchain, which is then distributed, through a network, to all the parties participating in this block, at each of whose “locations” third parties (including but not limited to “others involved with the work”) can see the applicable updated information. This distribution of updates explains why blockchains are categorized as “distributed digital ledgers,” such that the entire transaction history of any item provided with a blockchain is, in theory, always updated and available to inspection.
For the purposes of this article, any time I say “blockchain” I intend to refer to a distributed digital ledger technology, whether one that already exists, or is invented in the near future. I don’t mean any particular implementation. And, although the recent spate of articles talking about blockchain is probably a direct result of its association with cryptocurrencies, such as the well-known and controversial Bitcoin (although Ethereum and later implementations seem to represent an improvement on the original concept), I think it important to note that tradeable currency of any sort is not a necessary part of blockchain implementations.
Rather, as at the amusement park or in collecting comics, while it is always possible to use unique tokens to trade, it is not a required and inevitable result of using the technology. Rather, cryptocurrencies introduce an additional element to the theory and practice of blockchain — the token — which is an element of no concern to our focus here.
As with any promising and potentially disruptive technology, it will stand or fall on the usefulness it demonstrates in addressing real-world problems.
Of course, there are many applications for which blockchains simply aren’t suitable. A critical reader can easily find as many papers criticizing the hype around blockchain as a new “snake oil” as those suggesting that the technology holds promise.
For now, let’s assume that these limitations can and will be overcome in the next 3-5 years. Where might we be then — in terms of the potential for practical implementation of this technology — in addressing important problems surrounding licensing in copyright and perhaps other IP?
For one, copyright registrars or similar entities could create a blockchain to serve as a global registry, and then invite significant rightsholders and consumers in as nodes — this would meet the “no-personal-trust-required” mindset of blockchain enthusiasts. I’d see this as supplementary to existing systems and relatively fast to implement.
A blockchain-derived content identifier, when used in the service of creators and their works, could become one of many unique identifiers already in place, such as ISBN, ORCID, DOI, ISNI, ISRC and so forth. The International Standard Content Code (ISCC) is an experiment in exactly this vein.
The simplest and easiest fix to a copyright problem a simple blockchain might bring is the old (and nearly useless) “poor man’s copyright,” which boils down to creating a simple timestamp for your work by snail-mailing yourself a copy via the USPS. The folks over at Rightschain are seeking to take that old hack up a notch, although problems of cost-at-scale may limit broader feasibility.
Note, too, that blockchains are unlikely to be of much use in mitigating run-of-the-mill infringements; it is still just too easy to crop or screen-scrape or dumb-down the high-quality version of record and create a “good enough to pirate” version. And this is likely to remain true for some time.
Although I can foresee significant difficulties with the grayer areas of custom licensing, and may even be unhelpful when it comes to legitimate fair uses, blockchains might serve as a natural fit for storing the sale and terms of more routine licenses. For example, producing and distributing e-books. Self-executing contracts — ones that are limited to entries in the ledger — might be quite useful in such a context. Essentially, the license contract could include (or exclude) resale of the rights and the ledger could enforce it.
In the rarefied domain of copyright recordation, terminations and transfers, I can envision a blockchain that is quite useful in providing access to the public about updates in the reversion of rights back to a creator, or transfer to a new agent, or other recorded rights transactions of that sort.
As with any promising and potentially disruptive technology, it will stand or fall on the usefulness it demonstrates in addressing real-world problems to which answers are sought by real people. If there are costs — and there inevitably are costs — those who will bear them need to be convinced by clear creation of new value.
Not persuaded? I, too, remain skeptical. But on balance, I do wonder if, given the real-world content and rights issues that the industries that depend on copyright and licensing already have to deal with on a daily basis, a critical look a few steps ahead into a promising technology is warranted.
What do you think?
Disclosures: I own no cryptocurrencies, have never owned any and don’t expect to own any. I have no financial stake in any of the companies I have mentioned.