Is Ascribe the Answer to the Web’s Infringement Problem? [UPDATED]

inNT5UZF“The end of piracy?”

That’s one of the breathless sub-headers from TNW’s recent article about Ascribe, a German start-up.  Ascribe uses blockchain technology–the same string of software used in Bitcoin crypto-currency–to authenticate works of digital art. Artists submit their works to the service, and receive in return a unique bit of code that identifies the work as belonging to the artist. According to Ascribe, this “creates a permanent and unchangeable link between you and your creative work. That link – the record of ownership – can be forever verified and tracked.” (Physical pieces can be registered in a similar manner, by taking and submitting a photograph of the work, although the ability to treack physical items would be somewhat lessened.)

The idea is that, once a digital work is registered, it can then be shared, rented, sold, or otherwise transferred without worry that anyone else will ever claim authorship of the work.

It’s a good idea. Anything that enhances the ability to sort out authorship and verify digital transactions can’t be a bad thing. And if this sort of technology were adopted on a broad scale by a majority of online service providers, it could make an appreciable dent in counterfeiting.

But it’s not going to “end piracy” anytime soon–at least, not in its current form. First and foremost, it doesn’t actually do anything to prevent unauthorized reproductions of works.  Black & grey markets for pirated videos, music, books, and the like will continue to exist, and there’s no intermediary between the distributors and purchasers of such works that would stop to verify the authenticity of the copy. Second, until the technology gains widespread adoption, there won’t be even a bona fide infrastructure in place to verify the authenticity of any particular file’s block chain tag. Third, if the watermarked code can be added to a file, there must be a way to remove it–and the more prominent it becomes, the more demand there inevitably will be for such an ability. And fourth, like any other registration service, submitted a work to Ascribe doesn’t actually prove that you created it–only that you submitted it first.  Someone else can still come along and claim that you inappropriately registered their creation.

I say all that only to put the service in context.  It’s not a miracle cure for infringement, and to the extent that artists sign up expecting it to be one, they will be disappointed, to the detriment of the entire service. But to the extent it gains real traction, Ascribe does offer a potentially valuable (and apparently affordable) tool to digital artists for exercising some degree of control over their creations, which in turn raises hopes that more such artists (and the vendors who serve them) could begin to make actual money. And that can’t be a bad thing.

What’s more, the blockchain technology behind Ascribe has potential utility well beyond the digital art world.  If it works as well as advertised–and Bitcoin’s persistence suggests that it more or less does–then block chain technology could be used to verify financial transactions, digital music sales, ebook downloads–all of the digital media that already have far more money behind them than digital art does.  And that could have real financial consequences.

UPDATE: The folks at Ascribe reached out to me after reading the initial version of this article, and I thought it was only fair that their input be reflected here as well.

While they appreciated TNW’s rather gushing article, they readily agreed that “ending piracy” is not what their service does, nor what it was meant to do. Rather, Ascribe is focused on helping digital artists establish value in their works, and on facilitating an easier transfer of ownership. Their blockchain technology helps prove that a particular copy is authentic, but of course it doesn’t stop those who are committed to making unauthorized copies from doing so.

That said, however, it’s also interesting to note that, when a work is registered with Ascribe, the service scours the web for copies and look-alike images.  Although this isn’t the only image-searching tool around, it does give artists extra ammunition in extracting license fees or taking whatever other enforcement action they may choose to take.

They also agree that simply registering a work with Ascribe doesn’t prove that the person registering it is the true author. They make the fair point, though, that a fraudulent registration will be evidence that the true author can use against the defrauder–and that blockchain technology makes it harder to erase that evidence.

On that point, the one technical error they pointed out in my article is my use of the word “watermark.” As a layman, I was using this word as a synonym for any piece of code one uses to prove authenticity. Existing methods that are called “watermarking,” however, differ significantly from blockchain technology. “Any kid can download a program that removes a watermark,” said CTO Trent McConaghy. “But hackers have been trying and failing to break blockchain technology for the past five years.” On that word choice, then, I stand corrected.

It’s also interesting to note that Ascribe’s business model has been vindicated by the appearance of Verisart, another company planning to use blockchain technology to verify artwork.  While Verisart’s plans are still for the future, Ascribe has been quietly at work with artists to refine its technology since June 2013.  More information on their service and success stories is available on their FAQ and their blog.

It also remains true that this use of blockchain technology is still in its infancy.  I look forward to seeing what’s next.

H/T to Dave L. and Richard R. for pointing me to Ascribe, and thanks to the Ascribe leadership for reading and contributing to the discussion.

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