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Verifying Intellectual Property On The Blockchain

Innovators like Binded, Pixsy, TinEye and Ascribe promise to use decentralized ledger technology to register and protect against copyright infringement. They understand that a public, decentralized ledger like the blockchain is ideal for cataloging and storing original works of art, digital intellectual property, documents, manuscripts, photographs and images, away from any central authority.

Even if the copyright service ceases to exist, there will still be a verifiable copy of the original work on the blockchain.

The idea is simple. Rather than collecting information about the creator and their work and storing it in a centralized database, turning that database into a blockchain and decentralizing it enables everyone to find and use those works in an authorized way. The advantage is that decentralized ledger technology has the potential to provide a much greater amount of trust. A centralized database is only as trusted as as the entity that controls it. If they are compromised or engage in unethical behavior, that trust can be destroyed and the records they hold mean nothing.

However, decentralized ledger technology relies on the trust of the group. As long as the group is still strong and the blockchain is well distributed, the record is still valid even if the entity that created the chain initially is compromise in some way.

That is the blockchain’s greatest strength: that it’s designed to survive when people are unreliable. Whether that failing is business-, ethics- or technology-related, the blockchain can survive.

But longevity isn’t the only thing that a non-repudiation service needs. While it’s a critical problem to solve, it’s far from the most important.

In the U.S., the usefulness of a third-party, non-repudiation service, blockchain or otherwise, is limited by the U.S. Copyright Office. In short, anyone who is serious enough about their copyright to consider filing a lawsuit needs an official registration just to get into court and they need a timely one if they’re to collect all of the desired damages.

Since U.S. Copyright Office registration serves as prima facie proof of ownership, in most cases, a third-party service is superfluous from a content protection standpoint.

While non-repudiation services can provide a public record of ownership and a means to track a work back to it’s author, something the U.S. Copyright Office can’t do as effectively, that capability relies upon people being aware of the database and knowing how to search within it.

More importantly, copyright is governed by a patchwork of local laws that differ in sometimes important ways.

In an article about Binded's ability to protect creator copyright’s, author Nate Hoffelder maintains that companies like it are still selling the illusion of protection. While companies like Binded aim to help establish a date of creation for copyright works, that is almost never the issue. The underlying and real problem is ostensibly having any ability to remove or act on offending content or intellectual property and that will still require legal intervention.   

The bottom line is that these innovators are truly making the problem hot again and directing more attention to it, as signified by Spotify’s recent acqui-hire of Mediachain. More attention to a problem always means more money and time dedicated to solving it. More money and time will mean more potential solutions and more stakeholder buy-in. None of that is trivial. 

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