Blockchain and the transformation of the ownership of digital culture

blockchain Now that’s a title I’ve been waiting to use for awhile! I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how Blockchain might transform industries beyond finance, like film, for example. If you don’t know what the f I’m talking about, you’re not alone. While many tech people know Blockchain as the fundamental technology behind Bitcoin, few of the rest of us know much about it, and I’m not calling myself an expert, but many people believe it is as transformative as anything to have come around in quite a long time – so one has to ask, will it transform multiple sectors, and if so, will film be one of them. I think….maybe, and Monegraph points towards that future.

Quickly and grossly simplified, Blockchain is the technology that allows Bitcoin to work – it’s a way to ensure that when I pay you with Bitcoin, I am using a real Bitcoin, that I haven’t also sold the same Bitcoin to someone else. It’s like a virtual ledger that can show the history/ownership of any file (not just Bitcoins, it could be a media file for example) and allows for a decentralized mechanism to trace ownership. If you want to really understand it read this or this, but importantly, the technology allows one to authenticate the a certain file is a unique, true “original” file. It also allows for many other complex interactions, including interfacing with devices. This solves many a problem when you’re trying to trade money and buy/sell things, and it might also solve the question of authenticity in a digital world. That’s where Walter Benjamin comes in (again) to the conversation.

As any (poor-out-of-work) liberal arts major knows, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction summed up what happens when mechanical means make it easy to copy pretty much anything. The aura of an artwork is lost – what’s the value of an original when anyone can access a copy? Well, you can read that again to find out what happens (politics) but we’ve been wrestling with the nature of ownership in a digital world for a very long time, and Benjamin is a good reference point for the conversation.

Monegraph is a novel attempt to restore the aura of originality to digital artworks. It uses blockchain technology to authenticate an original work of art. You can watch this presentation on Monegraph, or watch the founder speaking about Monegraph for more details, but essentially you submit your work to Monegraph using your Twitter handle, the NameCoin client (you’ll spend a few pennies to get some NameCoins) and then you can create a Monegraph for your digital file. This is kinda like an interactive digital stamp that says: this here is the original artwork as created by the artist on this date. Yes, people can still make copies (legally or illegally), but only those created through a blockchain type transaction are “authentic.” The copies coexist, but if you want to buy and “original” work, you can do so through Monegraph.

As this same technology can be used for any file, it could be used to authenticate films, books, music, pretty much any digital file. In theory, it could be used to sell artist “special editions” of films, but it could theoretically be used instead of technologies like Ultraviolet, de-centralizing the control of the files, but allowing for authentication of “real” copies. Doing research today online, I found a writer, Ken Tindell, who has even proposed that the blockchain could be tied to your digital device, allowing it to read whether you have proper ownership of the file. So a Studio could sell you a film and you could own it and not have to worry about that file disappearing should Amazon suddenly stop carrying that title (which has happened). As Tindell proposes: 

“The full features of Bitcoin transactions could be then used, enabling a movie to be rented, sold, re-sold, loaned, and so on. The issuer of the coloured coin for a movie would be the movie studio and they would control the terms of the market for their own movies (perhaps demanding a ‘droit de suite’ fee when it was transferred). Because the rules of the scheme would be open and transparent and the ownership rules (such as requiring the issuing studio to countersign transfers) embedded directly into the blockchain it would then be possible to define just what ‘ownership’ of a movie means.”

That’s pretty cool, and is probably just the tip of the Iceberg, because we’re at the beginning of this revolution. But as an indie producer, I could sell my film and control how you share it (giving various permissions or charging certain fees based on my proclivities) without using iTunes or Netflix or Amazon. Sure those services still help with discovery, but a blockchain powered VHX could be pretty cool. It could also be used to make a better system of copyright registration, so we don’t have to send VHS, beta tapes or film to the Library of Congress (though film is a great storage medium).

In theory, I could also tie the blockchain at the clip level of my film, enabling me to share the clip with another filmmaker for “free” up-front, but then demand payment based on how that subsequent film is bought and sold. This would revolutionize the clip licensing business, letting me pay based on how successful my film is instead of some theoretical price paid up front before I know if my film will even be seen. It could allow for remix in new ways as well, perhaps allowing effective monetization, while retaining some artistic control and de-centralizing the authority (go direct to the artist instead of some agency). This could work not just for films, but any digital artwork, meaning a(nother) transformation of the relationship between artists and audiences, as well as a transformation in the concept of ownership of culture.

Importantly, it’s also a move towards de-centralization of the ownership and trade in culture. As Taylor Davidson has written elsewhere, there’s a big trend online now towards decentralization as people start to realize the problems we’ve got with so much power being held by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix and the NSA. Peer to peer transactions, like Bitcoin and Monegraph, among others, put more power back in the hands of people, and in this case give more power to artists connecting directly with audiences. As Taylor writes:

“But it’s possible to see how bitcoin, as a leading app for the blockchain, and a wide range of other peer-to-peer apps built on top of new mesh network technologies, could create unique, valuable, distributed alternatives to centralized approaches. Alternatives, not complete replacements, but viable alternatives could create knock-on effects at how the stacks do business. And the time for it could be now, as people are beginning to see the broader implications of the centralized Internet, and it’s feeding a burgeoning appetite for alternatives to the stacks. Bitcoin, multipeer connectivity, and mesh networking may seem far-fetched, but they could be signals that the next movement is already here.”

I’ve not given enough thought yet to figure out all of the potential uses and possible futures this affords, but that’s a panel/conversation I’d like to attend at some film festival (instead of another transmedia panel).

Got any ideas on how else this might be used?

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