Featured Photo: Black Wire Art Piece by William Bout, is licensed under CC0

Pixsy’s Chief Operating Officer, Kain Jones, details what all the hype is about and how this applies to photographers and image owners.

It seems everywhere you look in the tech scene at the moment ‘blockchain’ and ‘ICO’ are the hot topics. Investors and the like are throwing millions of dollars to anyone that posts a quick website and publishes a vague white paper related to the topic.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a decentralised, distributed digital ledger of records. Imagine a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update and reconcile all the copies spreadsheet so that all records match.

 There is no single source of the data but thousands of sources of the same information across thousands of computers/servers. No single person, company or computer is responsible for the blockchain, so in essence, all the records are truly public and easily verifiable. No central storage location means there is no single point for a hacker to corrupt – it would be almost impossible to take control of thousands of computers hosting the blockchain records in order to alter all copies at the exact same time. 

This type of solution offers a great deal of promise around ‘smart’ contracts, sales transactions, bank account balances, car sales, house/property sales, maintenance/repairs to items, loans (and repayments), verifying a document or email is genuine… And the list goes on… You start with the base record (that can never be changed/altered) and changes are added to the ledger as new transactions or as details are added. The current version, along with all the history is completely public and accessible, as the source of truth. 

Imagine two parties creating a ‘contract’, setting out the terms and payment process (likely through their digital wallet/currency). Once the contract is completed, and the payment recorded, this would the added to the ledger of the base record. 

How does this apply to images?

In a time where images are uploaded, shared, licensed and stolen online, a digital ledger containing the owner’s information along with all transactions relating to the image offers interesting promise. With such a ledger available to the public, and new transactions scribed into the records ledger as they happen the blockchain solution offers an insight into how a future solution might look like. However not without a number of fundamental challenges that need to be addressed first. 

The limitations

We are looking towards the future and some extremely promising possibilities, but we are at the very very beginning of the blockchain version 1. There are some fundamental challenges which are being overlooked (by most) in the rush to market and the rush to attract investment money. Within the image space, consider the following:

Proof of ownership

How do you really prove ownership? Anyone can come along, sign up to a blockchain service, upload an image and create a blockchain record claiming to be the owner. Once the record is live on the blockchain, it’s there for eternity.

They could start selling licenses and creating a rich licensing history on their ledger. Without strict controls and checks to verify that the user who is seeking to create a blockchain record is, in fact, the legal owner this starts to get out of control quickly. 

Duplicate or erroneous records

Once the record is live there is no undo or delete – it’s permanent. There is no central regulator to complain to and no one policing it. You better hope that the blockchain provider knows what they are doing and has experience is the topic. For the time being there are no ‘standards’ to follow when dealing with these types of records, so, for now, it’s up to each provider to do it their own way. 

Built on cryptocurrencies

The present solutions around blockchain are built on the payment architecture of digital cryptocurrencies. Crypto offers the benefit of anonymity and decentralized management. If your images are being sold to anonymous and untraceable buyers, how are you going to monitor if they are using it within the license terms? 

We are all seen the rapid rise and falls of Bitcoin and Ethereum in recent months. Beware of solutions and providers offering to sell your images and return for their home brand coin/token. If you don’t have the ability to cash out in real dollars, beware! It would only take one slip up for their coin to be worthless (or the company to vanish) and all your value gone with it. 

How does it apply to the law?

Simply put, it does not. Today’s legal systems are based on decades of traditional paper records, notarized contracts and courts of law to settle any disputes. Traditional copyright ownership and registrations are still the norms in present law. Imagine walking into a courtroom, and presenting to the judge a digital blockchain record as your claim to ownership. You won’t get very far. There is no process for compensation or damages under the law outside of the traditional sense. 

The whole concept of blockchain is that is cannot be centrally controlled, no regulation, no policing. There is no legal takedown process, no cease and desist options. ‘Host’ cannot be forced to delete the records. If someone is ripping off your work, there simply isn’t avenues to pursue.

Watch this space over the next 5-10 years. For the time being continue with what is legally applicable for today (and the coming years). The current solutions are tried and tested and have legal protections and monetary compensations for abuse and infringements. 

Pixsy‘s summary

Blockchain is in its infancy which is incredibly exciting. There is no doubt that it will change the norm of online transactions, security and contracts, to what extent is still unknown. 

Pixsy is extremely interested and actively invested in potential blockchain solutions. We some active projects researching and exploring solutions to the topics and challenges we see others simple ignoring or glossing over. 

Choose your provider wisely. Noone has experience in this (yet), so best to stick with a company that has a track record of dealing with image licensing, dealing with legal process, copyright management and registration, and is still going to be in business in 6+ months. 

Your images are your assets! Trying out blockchain and generating multiple records with multiple and new providers is not without an element of risk. Once a record is created on the blockchain, there is no going back. This is your asset we are talking about, and you don’t want to devalue it with erroneous or multiple records – you may be left with a mess that cannot be cleaned up. 

Beware the scam! We have seen 5-10 companies pop up in the last few months, incorporating overnight and rushing to market with a website and ICO offering. Many of which vanish off the web without a trace and take the crypto investment with them, never to be seen or heard from again. As this area is still without any regulation or oversight, you have little remedy or protection when things go wrong. 

Watch closely and see how the landscape, solutions and providers develop over the coming years. Ask them these tough questions and how they will deal with them. In the meantime, use and enjoy the current legal protections and processes.