Crypto

Is there potential for blockchain in copyright and licensing applications?

Comment

Dave Davis

Contributor

Dave Davis joined Copyright Clearance Center in 1994 and currently serves as a research analyst. He previously held directorships in both public libraries and corporate libraries and earned joint master’s degrees in Library and Information Sciences and Medieval European History from Catholic University of America.

More posts from Dave Davis

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. 

More TechCrunch

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

5 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?