Blockchain: A Technology Publishers Have Never Heard of is Here to Disrupt the Industry
(This article was written in anticipation of the ALLi organized session at Frankfurt Book Fair on this topic and will be updated with the developments. It has been inspired by ALLi and the articles written by Orna Ross.)
Cutting edge technology is usually here to solve problems we never knew we had at the first place. There is much less talk, however, about problems that have been around for a while and have finally become close to being solved.
Some of the problems creative industry as a whole is facing concern author payments, licensing and rights. With an amazing amount of ‘free’ content available (speaking of music on Youtube or Spotify, news and other types of journalistic content, books and images), it is hardly traceable how and when the creators will get paid. With an astonishingly long chain between writers and readers, creators and audience, it is only a fraction of the money that gets back to the original creators of the IP. Not to mention that in addition to taking a big slice of the cake, end-distributors use data and advertising revenue generated mainly by content they don’t own – this data and revenue is never redistributed.
On the other hand, licences are difficult to get hold of. If I would like to find a picture for illustration purposes, I can search certain databases for free-to-use images and then hope that the information is correct. While the creative commons standard improved this area a lot, there is still a lot of unauthorized use. (This could be due to mechanisms being mistaken and only partially automatized.)
Unauthorized use can range from posting a cool gif on tumblr without crediting the original creator (as there is literally no way to find it) to obvious theft. It is not only end-user piracy content creators are afraid of, but monetizing stolen IP. There is always the option of better DRM. But does it really solve the problem?
CC0 licence – on Pexels by veeterzy – An image I can legally use in any ways.
Blockchain – an introduction
Imagine a world where every bit of intellectual property (IP) was traceable and equipped with a digital ‘fingerprint’ that always changes and evolves as the licensing and ownership status of the IP changes. In this world, people wouldn’t have to rely on secondary sources to decide what can they do to an IP: it would all be built in within the product, just as your fingerprint is undetachable. You look at a picture, and you have a clear information on how to obtain licensing rights. You buy a book and the writer immediately gets the money. You watch a movie and the creators get paid right away.
This world is already here.
Blockchain is the technology cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether use. Without going into much detail: cryptocurrencies decentralize payments by using a giant, peer-to-peer computer network and transactions that are irreversible and based not on trust but on pure maths.
But payments are not the only thing you can send on this network. The way a coin would have a unique identifier and we would always know where it is in the system, IP can be ‘stamped’ as well. Blockchain is based on openness of information: there is no central agency to keep hold of records, but they are available for everyone. Without a third-party authorization system like the ISBN committee or copyright office keeping track of who owns the IP at any given point, we’ll know who is using it and who gets paid. The HBR envisions a world where artists are the main beneficiaries of their work– but is this too good to be true?
While peer-to-peer file sharing and digital currencies were for years the territory of illegal activities, tomorrow it could be the system changing how publishing works.
Technology that is already available
Blockchain technology doesn’t aim to replace bookstores and publishers. It is simply trying to make everything a bit more transparent.
Combined with micropayments – payments that can be smaller than that traditional currencies, eg. fractions of a cent– it will enable authors to sell their books easily on their own websites, publishers to contact authors whose manuscript they would like to buy and blogs and publishing platforms to shift from an ad-based revenue towards a pay-per-read revenue.
Blockchain can also redefine ownership as we know it today. Ever since the unfortunate event of Amazon erasing customer’s copies of Orwell’s 1984 that were illegally offered, we are aware that digital content cannot be owned the same way physical property is. It is not safe in the cloud of a corporation, and not safe on your computer.
The online publishing organization, Editions at Play tried to find a hypothetical answer to this problem. Their book, A Universe Explodes is an experiment to show people how blockchain works while creating a work of art and offering a solution to the above described problem.
As the co.design describes the project, each owner will have a unique copy: a unique version of the book she or he creates by changing a few words. Readers of the book are able to decide which copy to read.
The creators highlight the importance of being able to own something when it comes to being able to form a true attachment with something.
If your book was bought by a publisher and you gave your rights away or you are an artist selling a painting during your early years for ‘peanuts’ only to see it being auctioned for the multiplies of the original price – and not earn a penny, you can see the importance of a contract that is able to change as the value of your IP grows.
Artsy is here to solve this problem. While the idea that artists and other creatives should receive increased earnings as the value of their art goes up is by no means new, so far it could only be handled by long and complicated contracts and was difficult to implement.
With a blockchain attached to each artwork, it is easy to follow who owns the original rights and who should be paid how much when the work is sold again. On the backside, however, some pictures only change hands once in every few years: without a solid upfront payment it is possible that the artist will never see enough money from a work to pay the bills.
If it is about digital images getting attributed, blockchain also has a solution to this. Mediachain, the small blockchain startup that has been recently acquired by Spotify, is aiming to make attribution of any media (image, music, text) easy and possible. The picture receives a ‘stamp’ when created, and every share, usage and modification of it will be easy to track down using the system. It is hard to see though, how would this system react to images that go viral. When analysing too much information, is it possible to find the needle in the haystack?
A similar project to track down copyright infringements of written works is po.et. The project is developed on the idea that quotes and texts are often misattributed by media, or used by content scrapers. Every time a piece of text is created and added to the po.ets database, it receives a hash: like an originality stamp. The database is searchable for texts, and the little ‘stamp’ is easily displayable through WordPress or other blog provider. The project is currently in its first stage, but aims to work with big publishers worldwide to track down on stolen IP and make licensing of new books easier and safer for all parties involved.
Paying authors and publishers
As Ameer Rosic points out, it is very difficult to support the creation of high quality content and keeping your platform open and free. With more and more quality newspapers moving behind paywalls, we could be approaching a new age of poor information. While readers are willing to pay for content (see crowdsourcing projects or Patreon), not everyone can afford a subscription.
Imagine if every visitor who spends time reading your blog would spend a couple of cents automatically, based on how much they’ve read. The browser Brave can do just that: the readers set a monthly ‘budget’ and the browser automatically divides it between the publishers you select. Oh, and it also blocks ads. All of them.
Publiq by Decent is trying to give the power of creating a trusted brand back to the writers and authors. With IP rights automatically created and sealed, and shares tracked, authors can build a lifetime reputation (whatever this might mean). Publiq imagines a world without publishing companies and middlemen: just creators and readers.
Blockchain is currently at the stage of Peak of Inflated Expectations, based on the Gartner hype cycle – they give it 5-10 years to become mainstream. While currently it is the big thing, publishing professionals and industry disruptors have to prepare for the lean years to come: negative press and decreasing funding.
Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017 [Credit: Gartner, Inc]
For blockchain to become relevant and live up to the expectations on the long run, the technology has to solve some problems.
One of the biggest question society faces is how to ensure that there are no demographic groups experiencing information poverty. While there is no such thing as free IP (except for a few altruistic individuals and organizations trying to truly democratize access to information), everyone can willingly or unwillingly share their email address or gender. It is much more difficult, however, to pay real money in order to access content. Is it possible that these plans backfire and create a new elite that has unique access to information nobody else does?
While some startups accept the roles of publishers and distributors, companies like Publiq prefer author to reader communication with no ‘gateways’. This raises the question of getting discovered: if there are no publishers and distributors giving you a helping hand in the marketing, how will you stand out from the storm of information?
How can you engage your readers and get smart recommendations without the tech giants like Google, Apple, and Amazon? Will their key to success be decentralized too? As we mentioned in the article on AI, international companies use the power of big data to provide better services. Individual users have no access to this information and cannot utilize it.
On a separate note, it is also difficult to imagine how would everybody else participating in the creation of a certain work benefit from its success. Who deserves up-front payments and who should wait for the royalties to flow in? While these questions are already existent (for example I find royalty share based translation fairly bizarre, it works nevertheless), some companies like Publica (will) take it to a level we have never envisaged before.
What do you think? Is this really the future?