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Blockchain Technology’s Growing Role in the Art Industry

At first glance, the art industry may not seem like an obvious candidate for disruption via blockchain technology.

Much of the industry is not digitized — trade in oil-on-canvas paintings is still a big business — and in some cases the artists have been dead for centuries. They have no say about how their work is attributed or redistributed.

Yet blockchain technology is poised to change the art industry in a few important ways. Blockchain-based solutions are enabling new methods for tracing the origins of works, protecting art creators’ rights and more. This is true especially for digital art, but blockchain-based innovations are also being applied to the world of traditional offline art. 

Artwork Scarcity

The first issue that can be addressed by distributed ledgers is that of scarcity. In many cases, art that people are willing to pay for has value in large part because it is scarce: There is only a limited number of copies of a work, and buyers will spend money for the exclusive or near-exclusive right to own it.

When you start making copies of a work, the work becomes less scarce and therefore less valuable.

Preventing the production of unauthorized copies of a work of art is difficult. The challenge is the greatest in the case of digital works, which can be copied ad infinitum at virtually no cost. But it applies to offline works, too, which could potentially be copied in ways that make it difficult to know which work of art is the original and which is a fake or an unauthorized reproduction.

The scarcity issue is a problem for artists, whose work becomes less valuable when it is copied. It is also a challenge for collectors, since the value of the art they own can decrease if it becomes less scarce. Other groups are impacted, too; for example, a company that pays licensing fees to use an authorized copy of a work is harmed when other people copy the same work without paying.

Artists’ Attribution Rights

The second major issue in the art industry that blockchain technology can help address centers on the attribution rights of artists.

Artists struggle to protect their attribution rights for works that they produce. This is particularly true for the creators of digital art, which, as noted above, can be easily copied or redistributed without the original artist’s permission. If that happens, the artists who created valuable content may not receive the credit or payment that they are due.

The challenge of artwork attribution is especially complicated given that, unlike a document that someone might redistribute on the internet without the author’s permission, misappropriated artworks are not something you can typically identify through a simple Google search. Plus, the fact that an artist’s work might be modified by someone who reuses it without permission, or incorporated into a larger work, makes it even harder to identify art theft.

Ambiguity and plausible deniability are problems, too. An artist might claim that someone else misused his work by reproducing it in modified form without permission, but the accused party could dispute the claim by arguing that the similarities between two works are mere coincidences and that no misuse occurred. 

Blockchain Platforms for Art

A number of startups are using blockchain technology to address the challenges described above. Their primary focus is on controlling attribution and distribution rights related to digital art, but some extend their reach to offline art, too.

Monegraph

New York-based Monegraph uses the Bitcoin blockchain to store and redistribute digital artwork. Artists can set terms of their choosing to govern how their work can be shared or reused. In addition to allowing artists to create immutable records for ownership of their artwork, Monegraph also provides a public catalog where anyone can search for works. In this way, the platform helps to address the marketing challenges faced by artists who lack access to commercial marketing services for their work.

Ascribe

Ascribe works very similarly to Monegraph. It also leverages the Bitcoin blockchain to allow artists to upload, store, license and share work. There are no major differences between Ascribe and Monegraph, although their focuses vary somewhat; Ascribe emphasizes its ability to allow artists to trace where their works are being used on the internet, for example.

Codex

Codex is similar to Ascribe and Monegraph, but with some important differences. Codex’s goal is not to create a blockchain-based application for registering art, but rather to build a protocol on which distributed applications can in turn be constructed. Codex also uses the Ethereum blockchain and has its own token, called BidDex. 

Verisart

Like Monegraph and Ascribe, Verisart also uses the Bitcoin blockchain to register artworks. However, Verisart hopes to create a catalog not just of digital works but of offline art as well. It uses image-recognition technology, and it generates certificates of authenticity that can theoretically verify the originality of any work of art. 

Maecenas

Maecenas aims to address a different problem in the art industry: Helping people become art collectors. It uses blockchain technology to allow anyone to purchase ownership shares in artworks. Because the platform allows users to purchase only a small part of a work, it lowers the barrier to art collecting. It enables people who would not be able to afford to purchase a high-value work on their own to build their own art collections, with ownership rights managed on the blockchain.

DADA

DADA is a decentralized marketplace for art. The blockchain and smart contracts enable safe purchasing transactions and ownership rights for art collectors, while also protecting the attribution rights of artists.

Looking Forward

In some ways, the impact of blockchain technology on the art industry is more limited than it is in other markets. It would be an overstatement to say that blockchains are revolutionizing art at the moment.

However, blockchain technology offers promising innovations for artists and art collectors. The list of companies pursuing them remains relatively small, but the potential is clear for further adoption of blockchain solutions in this space.

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