Huh? Blockchain and the Arts?
If you’ve heard about blockchain at all, it is most likely because of Bitcoin, the alternative non-state sanctioned currency. But the uses of blockchain go beyond Bitcoin.
“The Blockchain is a … database technology, a distributed ledger that maintains and ever growing list of data records, which are decentralised and impossible to tamper with. The data records, which can be a Bitcoin transaction or a smart contract or anything else for that matter, are combined in so-called blocks. In order to add these blocks to the distributed ledger, the data needs to be validated by 51% of all the computers within the network that have access to the Blockchain.
“The validation is done via cryptography, which means that a mathematical equation has to be solved … Once the validation is done, the Block will receive a timestamp and a so-called hash. This hash is then used to create the next block in the chain. If even one bit in the block changes, the hash will change completely and as a result, all subsequent blocks in the chain will change. Such a change has to be validated again by 51% of all the nodes in the network, which will not happen because they don’t have an incentive to work on ‘old’ blocks in the chain. Not only that, the blockchain keeps on growing, so you would require a tremendous amount of computing power to achieve that, which is extremely expensive. So it is simply not worth it to change any data. As a result, it is nearly impossible to change data that has been recorded on the Blockchain.”
The protection of the digital material from snoopers, the strong validation and the decentralization of blockchains are especially attractive.
The potential uses of blockchain are a hot area for venture investment. And there’s a cottage industry in consultants providing advice on the subject. One of the most well-respected gurus of the business world, Don Tapscott, just co-authored a book on the subject with his son Alex, who is CEO of a venture capital firm that specializes in blockchain companies. It’s called “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, And The World”.
More than a year ago, R3, a consortium of banks and related companies from around the world – now numbering about four dozen – started to develop their own blockchain.
Sure, it’s understandable that bankers are interested in this technology. But artists?
I suppose some artist will, at some point, figure out how to use blockchain as a new art form – dropping little pieces of an artistic puzzle in a chain. But that’s not what the usual interest is about.
Instead, since the digital age started, quickly followed by widespread digital piracy then reduced incomes for many artists, people have wondered how artists will be able to continue their artistic work – the long history of “starving artists” aside.
Blockchains have been gaining adherents as a way to help establish ownership and subsequent payment for use.
In their book, the Tapscotts describe a virtual nirvana for artists, built atop blockchains which would enable artists to register their works, enter into “smart contracts” and generally be at the center of the creative ecosystem, rather than as the lowest person on the totem pole.
Last week, Don Tapscott reiterated the point in “Blockchain Could Be Music’s Next Big Disruptor – Artists can finally get what they deserve”.
Daniel Cawrey made a similar argument in his article, “How Bitcoin’s Technology Could Revolutionize Intellectual Property Rights.”
And blockchain technology, in theory, could be beneficial for artists. But there are practical obstacles in making this happen and, in the long run, a fundamental flaw in the plan.
Let’s start with the practical question as to how this gets set up.
Here are just a few questions, off the top of my head.
Who does it? Without getting into the technical weeds here, there is also a question as to what characteristics a particular blockchain service would have – yes, there are options. How can the “platform” provider be reimbursed? Do you start from scratch or try to negotiate with agencies already serving related functions, like ASCAP? Who polices all this to make sure that the record established in the blockchain is actually being used to compensate artists?
The bigger issue is treating ideas or creativity as “intellectual
property” – in economics terms, as a private good, instead of a public good. As
we have learned, most inventions and creations are not the result of a
solo hermit genius, but are the result of direct or indirect
collaboration. So this concept of the idea as private property of the
first person (or corporation) to claim it is debatable. New ideas and
creative works may be more public, than private, good.
As Thomas Jefferson, amateur scientist and political philosopher, said some time ago:
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
I’m looking at this issue in a very pragmatic, non-ideological way. Simply, although technology may make it feasible to track ideas and government laws may try to put a private label on them, this often doesn’t work because it goes against the nature of the good. Some things might start out as private enterprises, but if they are in essence public goods, the private enterprise will fail.
Consider the development of mass transit in many cities, mostly which were franchises to private companies until those companies realized they couldn’t really make a profit in the business.
I’m not sure what the answer is to prevent artists from starving because they can’t live on the money they receive while being artists. Blockchain may have a role. But the solution will take more than just continuing to think about the problem in a fundamentally flawed way as the protection of private property.
If you’re not an artist, you need to understand this also affects you. How people get enough income to live comfortably is an ever increasing problem in an age where an ever increasing number of people have to be creative, not just making music and art, but all kinds of ideas and works.
[Note: For a related blog post, see The Internet & The Battle Over Innovation.]
© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved