Blockchain Technology In the Digital Millennium

Whatever your thoughts are on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), you have to give its drafters points for ambition.

Rather than settling on a Copyright Act for the “Dot-com” decade or the “connected century,” the legislators of the 105th United States Congress opted for the grandiosity of the Digital Millennium. The twenty years since the Act passed have truly transformed the world – the internet now dominates the world economy, leaping from our computers to our phones, to our video game systems, to our cars, even to our dishwashers and laundry machines. Phone-line 56k made way for cable and for fiber; before Wi-Fi and 4G untethered the internet from its cables. The advent of the internet required brave legislation, but it almost seems as if every new innovation since 1998 has led to new ways of violating copyright law.

But, could this emergence of blockchain technology present a solution in the digital millennium?

Should Copyright Law Be Expanded?

Google received over half a billion DMCA “takedown requests” in 2016; while some of the DMCA requests targeted fair uses of copyrighted material, many millions of takedown requests addressed genuine infringements of copyright. In certain corners of the internet, copyright law has a bad reputation. Generally, it’s misunderstood as a tool of institutional overreach, not as a guarantor of individual rights. While it’s true that the most famous of copyright cases of the digital era have involved music or movie pirates being sued by record or film companies, copyright concerns extend far beyond corporate boardrooms.

What is a “Copyright?”

In the United States, copyright adheres to work “the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” The words you, the creator write, the drawings you pencil, the photographs you take, and the videos you record-all have copyright protections, whether or not you register them with the government’s copyright office.

If a photo or song that’s published, goes viral without proper attribution to its creator, that individual’s copyright has most likely been violated. Copyright law applies to “the little guys” like you and I, and not just to the behemoth record labels and film studios.

Digital files are reproducible – this is what makes them so useful and also what makes copyright infringement, for example of a studio’s film or of your own photograph, so easy. If everything is so easily duplicated, how can copyrights be properly traced?

Tracking Intellectual Property, Properly

Most internet users are unfamiliar with the Blockchain, and those who do recognize the term often associate it with its most popular (to date) use, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The beauty of blockchain technology is the fact that its potential allows for decentralized ledgers to track, record, and indisputably agree on various types of information. Cryptocurrencies only function because they allow for secure digital transactions: they cannot be cloned or replicated, and each transaction is stamped with a unique, traceable identifier.

Intellectual property is increasingly morphing into digital property – the Blockchain can therefore improve digital rights management by enabling time-stamped and immutable proof of authorship. Imagine the potential for this technology to have the ability to track copyrighted works and ensure that creators receive their rightful share of any revenue from their work.

Imogen Heap’s Mycelia

Take Grammy-winning musician, Imogen Heap, as an example. She is one artist who expects the Blockchain to simplify artists’ copyright woes. Her foundation, Mycelia, helps musicians track their work around the internet “to see that commercial, ethical and technical standards are set to exponentially increase innovation for the music services of the future.” And Heap is not the only one with an eye on the Blockchain as a means of recording and managing music copyright.

Spotify’s Mediachain

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Last year, streaming giant Spotify, which has had to pay millions in fines for unpaid royalties, acquired a company called Mediachain on the hunch that blockchain implementation would help with attribution and aid their royalty record keeping.

Since the days of Napster and Limewire, music has been at the forefront of digital copyright innovation and controversy, so it’s not surprising to observe blockchain’s inroads into music. More unusual is blockchain’s entry into the fine art world.

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In spring 2018, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin sat for an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, a leading curator of contemporary art; in the summer, Obrist led a one-day Christie’s seminar on blockchain. Major fairs like Art Basel routinely include blockchain events, and a few artists are experimenting with selling art via blockchain. Both individual artists like Eve Sussman and institutions like Christie’s are exploring blockchain’s potential, which suggests that the art world will find many applications for this new technology.

Have You Felt the Technological Shockwaves?

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We’re just two decades into the Digital Millennium, so it’s not a shock that we haven’t yet solved the problem of copyright on the internet. As new technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality gain prominence and reach public acceptance, there can be few doubts that more copyright questions will arise. While blockchain may not be the answer to all of these problems, it’s a tool that the architects of tomorrow’s internet would do well to keep researching and expanding upon.

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