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Blockchain: Is there potential for blockchain in copyright and licensing applications?


Dave Davis joined

Copyright Clearance Center

in 1994 and currently serves as a research analyst. He previously held directorships in both public libraries and corporate libraries and earned joint master’s degrees in Library and Information Sciences and Medieval European History from Catholic University of America.

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By all accounts, we appear to be in the early stages of a classic “hype cycle” about the potential for uses of blockchain technology. Careful analysts need to filter out that noise, but, as with all technology bubbles, there are blockchain skeptics, and blockchain enthusiasts.

I am somewhere in the middle — currency speculation, in my opinion, is nothing but a big distraction; it is improving information services that I am interested in. And I’m most interested in technologies that show promise in bringing more accuracy and efficiency to the worlds of copyright and licensing.

So, does blockchain technology show meaningful promise for real-world copyright and licensing applications? Let’s take a closer look.

Blockchain: What are blockchains, and why should I care?

What is a blockchain? Why are so many startups and techno-pundits going on and on about it? What sort of problems can it solve, and who has these problems? And, more importantly, what is it good for (in the sense of being useful)?

Simply and practically put, in this context a block is a unique number, derived mathematically through computing. This number is applied for a single use, which typically would be as the root identifier for a digital work of any sort. Examples of a work protected by such a blockchain would include a document (PDF) or the source code for a program, or a digital image, or anything in a fixed form represented in ones and zeroes.

Once established as the root identifier, any changes to the digital work are written — more numbers — into the blockchain, which is then distributed, through a network, to all the parties participating in this block, at each of whose “locations” third parties (including but not limited to “others involved with the work”) can see the applicable updated information. This distribution of updates explains why blockchains are categorized as “distributed digital ledgers,” such that the entire transaction history of any item provided with a blockchain is, in theory, always updated and available to inspection.

For the purposes of this article, any time I say “blockchain” I intend to refer to a distributed digital ledger technology, whether one that already exists, or is invented in the near future. I don’t mean any particular implementation. And, although the recent spate of articles talking about blockchain is probably a direct result of its association with cryptocurrencies, such as the well-known and controversial Bitcoin (although Ethereum and later implementations seem to represent an improvement on the original concept), I think it important to note that tradeable currency of any sort is not a necessary part of blockchain implementations.

Rather, as at the amusement park or in collecting comics, while it is always possible to use unique tokens to trade, it is not a required and inevitable result of using the technology. Rather, cryptocurrencies introduce an additional element to the theory and practice of blockchain — the token — which is an element of no concern to our focus here.

As with any promising and potentially disruptive technology, it will stand or fall on the usefulness it demonstrates in addressing real-world problems.

Of course, there are many applications for which blockchains simply aren’t suitable. A critical reader can easily find as many papers criticizing the hype around blockchain as a new “snake oil” as those suggesting that the technology holds promise.

For now, let’s assume that these limitations can and will be overcome in the next 3-5 years. Where might we be then — in terms of the potential for practical implementation of this technology — in addressing important problems surrounding licensing in copyright and perhaps other IP?

For one, copyright registrars or similar entities could create a blockchain to serve as a global registry, and then invite significant rightsholders and consumers in as nodes

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